Dems told to emphasize English, background check, border security in immigration debate

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 8 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this May 9, 2013, file photo Senate Judiciary Committee members, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, center, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, left, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., seated right, discuss proposed changes to immigration reform legislation during the committee's markup session on the bill on Capitol Hill in Washington. At its controversial core, the bill creates a 13-year pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11.5 million immigrants currently in the United States illegally. Internal divisions within the Republican party, deeply held differences over policy, concerns over costs and more add to the complexity of the bill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Memo to supporters of bipartisan legislation moving to the Senate floor: Make sure you stress that immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally would have to work, learn English, pass a background check and, especially, pay taxes before they could gain citizenship.

Emphasize that 100 percent of the U.S.-Mexican border will be put under surveillance, that immigrants who gain legal status won't be eligible for welfare "for over a decade" and that anyone entering the United States unlawfully in the future will be barred from legal status.

Don't forget to tag critics of the bill as defenders of a status quo that's unpopular with the public.

That's the poll-tested advice distributed to Senate Democrats recently on a measure that offers the best chance in years to overhaul the nation's immigration system, at the same time it gives President Barack Obama an opportunity for a landmark second-term domestic triumph.

It may sound simple, given that a bipartisan group of eight senators drafted the bill and then shepherded it through the Senate Judiciary Committee; that the White House, organized labor and the Chamber of Commerce all support the measure; and that many Republican political strategists want the GOP to show a more welcoming face to Hispanic voters.

It won't be.

Presidential ambitions alone will see to that, as Sen. Marco Rubio, for one, attempts a political straddle while other potential GOP presidential candidates firmly oppose the measure.

The Florida Republican helped negotiate the bipartisan bill now headed to the full Senate, and recently has called for changes as he tries to keep faith with tea party supporters and other conservatives who will vote in the 2016 primaries and caucuses.

Internal divisions in the Republican party, deeply held differences over policy, concerns over costs and more add to the complexity of legislation that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said must come to a final vote by July 4.

"In truth, the bill is amnesty first and a promise of enforcement later," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Friday, previewing points he and other conservative opponents intend to make over the next three weeks.

The bill's requirement for payment of back taxes "is toothless," the promised steps to secure the border "will not work" and millions of immigrants currently in the country illegally would qualify for welfare in five years, Sessions said. The measure "actually weakens current law in quite a number of significant areas" when it comes to immigration cases tried in the courts, he added.

Sessions derided the bipartisan coalition behind the measure as a collection of outside groups that do not represent the national interest.

In a reflection of the GOP divide, he took issue with Karl Rove, the former top strategist for President George W. Bush, whose own attempt at immigration overhaul flamed out in 2007.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Rove warned Republicans to be mindful of solid public support both for secure borders and for a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.

He urged GOP lawmakers to avoid use of the term "amnesty," which he said is "forgiveness of wrongdoing without penalty."

The legislation imposes financial costs on immigrants now in the country illegally who seek citizenship.

At its controversial core, the legislation creates a 13-year route to citizenship for an estimated 11.5 million immigrants currently in the United States illegally. It also sets border security goals that the government must meet before any change in legal status is granted to immigrants.

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