WASHINGTON — Bipartisan authors of a sweeping immigration bill agreed to Republican-authored amendments to boost border security, as they tried Thursday to show they're open to changes to attract more GOP support for their landmark legislation.
The bill's authors also stuck together to defeat a Republican amendment that would have barred anyone from seeking citizenship until the U.S.-Mexico border had been secured for six months. Supporters of the bill charged that the real effect of that provision would have been to delay citizenship indefinitely for the estimated 11 million people living here illegally.
The fast-paced action unfolded as the Judiciary Committee convened the first of what's expected to be two weeks of meetings to plow through some 300 amendments to the legislation backed by President Barack Obama to remake the nation's immigration laws. The bill would toughen border security, overhaul legal immigration to allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, require all employers to check their workers' immigration status and create a 13-year path to citizenship for the millions already here.
The debate and votes Thursday provided a window into the possibilities and challenges before the immigration bill as it faces an uncertain fate on the Senate floor in June and then in the GOP-controlled House. A handful of Republican senators appeared unwavering in opposition. In his opening comments, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, charged that the bill does little more than repeat mistakes of the past.
"It falls short of what I want to see in a strong immigration reform bill, so you will hear me say many times that we shouldn't make the same mistakes that we made in 1986," the last time Congress passed a major immigration overhaul bill, Grassley said. "You'll hear me say many times that we ought to move ahead with a bill that does it right this time."
Supporters of the bill countered that the legislation represents the country's best hope to change the immigration system and a chance to break through the partisanship that's riven Congress and the country. They pleaded with opponents and senators who might be wavering to give the bill a chance and try to improve it — not just look to kill it.
"We have come up with a fair bill where no one gets everything they want, but at the end of the day, it will mean dramatic improvement for the American economy, the American people, and will make our immigration policy much more in sync with what is good for jobs and America," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the bill's eight authors.
The bill survived an early test as the committee voted 12-6 to defeat a Grassley amendment to require border security for six months before legalization programs could begin. Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voted with Democrats to bring it down. Flake and Graham are among the Republican authors of the bill.
"This amendment would set a standard that basically would delay, probably forever, any legalization, bringing people out of the shadows," said Schumer.
Grassley said the goal was to ensure real border security, something he charged the bill lacks.
"If we pass the bill as-is, there will be no pressure on this administration or future administrations to secure the border," he said.
But in a concession by Democrats, the committee agreed to a Grassley amendment to require that new border security standards in the bill — calling for 90 percent of would-be crossers to be stopped or turned back — must apply to the entire southern border, not just "high-risk" sectors with the most crossings as the bill now says. Schumer called it a positive change, and the committee agreed to it by voice vote.
The bill was written during months of private negotiations by eight senators equally divided between the two parties. Four of these lawmakers sit on the Judiciary Committee — Schumer, Graham, Flake and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. — and the focus was on them Thursday to see if they would stick together to defeat amendments from either side that could strike at the bill's central provisions, upending the fragile compromises at its core.
The vote on the Grassley amendment requiring six-month control of the border before unauthorized immigrants could begin to legalize their status was likely the first of several in which the Republican authors sided with Democrats on the committee to vote down amendments from their own side. Schumer and Durbin also are expected to lend their votes to the Republican side to defeat Democratic amendments that could improve the bill for immigrant families, but cost Republican support.
Although the bill allows citizenship to go forward only after certain border security goals have been met, those "triggers" haven't proven convincing enough for many GOP lawmakers, and even one of the bill's authors, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has said border measures need to be stronger. Although Rubio does not sit on the Judiciary Committee, he has pushed for some changes to be accepted, and the authors of the bill who do sit on the committee were going along with some of them Thursday.
The committee also agreed to Grassley amendments to require more auditing of money collected under the bill, and to an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to add certain forms of trafficking in persons to a the list of violent crimes that must be reported by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
An amendment by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to give Congress a bigger role in signing off on border security steps in the bill was defeated.
Altogether, the committee approved 15 and defeated two amendments Thursday before breaking for lunch.
Follow Erica Werner on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ericawerner.