Immigration Reform 2013: Senate Puts Final Polish On Massive Bill Likely to Be Trashed By House

Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) have put the finishing touches on their amendment to the so-called Gang of Eight's immigration bill, with hopes of appeasing a few Republicans as well as some red-state Democrats. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will hold a procedural floor vote to enact the amendment, which is widely expected to pass, at 5:30 p.m. EST on Monday.

This newest piece of the bill includes multiple provisions to strengthen border security, including appropriations for 20,000 new border patrol agents, $3.2 billion in high-tech surveillance, and an additional 700 miles of fencing.

"This is like the Border Patrol's dream plan," said Corker.

It's a last-chance attempt to scrounge together a few remaining Senators who are on the fence, including a number of well-tailored provisions to do just that. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) had been arguing for language pertaining to the way the Department of Homeland Security operates around high-traffic air ports, which he got. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had been pushing for tougher regulations on how much and how soon legalized immigrants must pay their back taxes and benefit provisions, which he got in part (though his ideal requirement that undocumented immigrants pay back their taxes in full before achieving legalization was dropped).

It's a rare moment of optimism for Washington as the colossal, cooperative, bipartisan, 1190-page bill, described by some as a delicate "Jenga tower" of interlocking provisions, hurtles towards a full floor vote. Many expect it to sail past the 60 votes necessary to defeat a filibuster; some think it could hit 70. 

"We're picking up more supporters each day," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) "We're not at 70 yet. But we're gaining supporters and this amendment helps a great deal." Even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seems to be on board, urging his Republican colleagues last week not to try to block the bill from floor vote.

The amendment seeks to address several of the key concerns voiced by native labor groups, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that certain industries were trying to lure workers to the country who would be willing to work for lower wages, rather than boost the starting salaries needed to attract native workers. "I feel, very much, that a lot of the initiative behind these guest worker programs … is coming from large corporations who want cheap labor from abroad," said Sanders. He is reluctantly supportive of the amendment, which appropriates $1.5 billion in grants to state and local communities to find opportunities for qualifying 16-to-24-year-olds, a demographic that has seen some of the highest unemployment numbers through the recession.

"I have a hard time understanding the notion that there's a severe need for more workers from abroad when wages for these jobs rose only 4.5% between 2000 and 2011," Sanders explained. "You see stagnant wages for high skilled workers, when these companies tell you that they desperately need skilled workers. Why not raise wages to attract those workers?"

Others too are upset at the loss of a briefly-suggested provision by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to extent protections to same-sex couples, who under the current legislation still would still not be able to apply for the naturalization of a foreign-born spouse. Both Sens. Schumer, and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said that they supported the idea in principle, but were wary of sabotaging the bill by loosing too many key Republicans, like Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who said that he would vote no if the final bill contained such a provision. "With a heavy heart," Leahy withdrew the provision.

Comprehensive immigration reform is one of the highest priorities for President Obama's second term, though he has taken a back seat on the drafting of the bill at the advice of top aids in the White House, as well as a few senior staffers in Congress. He has opted instead to allow the Gang of Eight and the Senate Judiciary Committee to comb through the finer points of the legislation without much fanfare or political chest-beating. "None of the committee members got everything they wanted," Obama said, praising the 13-5 margin by which the bill cleared committee last month, "... and neither did I. But in the end, we owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line."

If passed, immigration could be one of those rare moments where meaningful and comprehensive reform comes under the elusive label bipartisan, potentially even carrying with it a majority of support both parties (if such a thing is possible). Both Democrats and Republicans have the opportunity to win the favor of a large and growing voting block, one that picks up more political capital every year as the Hispanic population in the country continues to rise

In current form, the bill provides a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the country, would add enforcements to deter future illegal entry into the country, and would completely overhaul and modernize an aging immigration system.

It’s a hopeful sign for the 113th Congress that bipartisanship, cooperation, and compromise, of all things, might still be possible in the era of red states and blue states and Citizens United and Mitch McConnell. Though many are now looking with trepidation to the House, which just last week somehow managed to mangle and destroy the ill-fated farm bill, an unexpected level of dysfunction that blindsighted nearly the entire agricultural industry. 

"If you think this is hard," Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) remarked glibly, "try getting 218 on a path to legal status."