Conservative opponents of the Gang of Eight’s immigration-reform bill got their first chance to offer amendments Thursday, during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They introduced several measures aimed at strengthening the bill’s border-security requirements. Nearly all of them were rejected.
Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), the most prominent GOP member of the Gang of Eight, said in a statement Tuesday that if the bill is going to become law, it “will have to be improved to bolster border security and enforcement even further.” And polling suggests that a significant majority of voters think border security should be strengthened before any other elements of immigration reform — such as granting legal status to illegal immigrants — are even considered. As written, however, the Gang’s legislation merely requires that the DHS secretary submit a plan to secure the border before illegal immigrants are made eligible for legal status.
The committee did approve a few minor changes to the border-security section of the bill on the first day of the lengthy markup process. (Committee members have filed more than 300 amendments.) Some additional funding was allocated, and the Government Accountability Office was required to prepare an annual assessment of new border-security measures. However, a number of Republican amendments that would have significantly bolstered security and enforcement were voted down.
The committee rejected an amendment from ranking member Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) that would have required the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to effectively secure the southern border for six months before granting legal status to illegal immigrants. Grassley’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 12 to 6. Senators Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), the GOP committee members who are also part of the Gang of Eight, joined Democrats in voting against it — the first of many such votes throughout the day. The committee later approved a watered-down version of Grassley’s amendment, which would apply new border-security strategies to all nine sectors of the southern border, instead of just three sectors identified as “high risk.”
Another amendment proposed by Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) met a similar fate. Lee’s amendment would have required Congress to approve and ratify, via a fast-tracked, simple-majority vote, the DHS secretary’s report certifying that the department’s new border-security strategies are operational. It was defeated 12 to 6, with Flake and Graham once again joining the Democratic majority. Graham told members of the committee that the Gang of Eight had considered including such a measure in their bill, but ultimately axed it because they feared the Republican-controlled House would not agree to ratify the secretary’s report, thus preventing the bill’s other provisions from being implemented.
Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) put forward several amendments to strengthen the border-security provisions of the bill, including one that would have required the completion of a 700-mile double-layer fencing along the southern border; it, too, was defeated 12 to 6.
Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) offered an amendment that would have dramatically increased security along the southern border by, among other things, tripling the number of Border Patrol agents, quadrupling the number of sensors, cameras, drones, and other surveillance equipment, and fully implementing a biometric entry-exit system at land-border crossings. DHS would lose funding, and political appointees would have their salaries docked 20 percent, if these measures were not implemented within three years. The amendment was defeated by a 13-to-5 vote, with Senator Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) joining Flake and Graham in opposition. Cruz’s colleague from Texas, Senator John Cornyn, offered a similar amendment to require stricter border-security triggers; it was defeated 12 to 6.
Cruz, who in his opening statement argued that the Gang of Eight legislation has “grave problems when it comes to border security,” lamented that the committee had voted down “every serious border-security proposal,” and predicted that “this bill will not pass” as a result.
Cruz and Cornyn got into a testy exchange with Gang member Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who suggested that Cruz’s opposition to the bill had less to do with his desire for increased border security than with his opposition to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. (Cruz filed an amendment that would bar illegal immigrants from becoming citizens.) “I would like to point out the border security in the state of Texas is not some abstract concept,” Cruz said, before inviting Schumer and his other colleagues to come visit and see for themselves. “I believe Americans of goodwill, both Republicans and Democrats across this country want the U.S. government to get serious about securing the border.”
Not surprisingly, committee members disagreed as to whether the first day of the markup had been a success. Sessions noted that the members of the Gang of Eight “stuck together, as we were told they would,” to block significant changes to the bill, particularly with respect to increased border security. “[Border security] is not fixed,” he said. “The American people need to understand, this is how you get taken to the cleaners.”
Flake was more optimistic, arguing that the Gang’s bill “is better today than it was when we started.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.