With Congress back in session this week, the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" is working to persuade undecided Democratic and Republican senators to support their immigration reform bill which offers citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants who entered the country before 2012.
After the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, proponents of the bill have been painstakingly trying to pick up more Senate Republicans to reach a lofty goal of 70-plus votes (surpassing the 60-vote conservative filibuster) while crafting a bill that would not compel Senate Democrats to vote against it. In order to gain further Republican support, the bipartisan task force must appease Democrats who hope to grant citizenship to the millions of undocumented people who remain in the United States, while tackling border security that has remained a large concern for Republicans and conservatives.
“It’s very simple. If we can come up with a plan that people have confidence in for the border, I believe we’ll have immigration reform," GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida told Fox News's Sean Hannity. “If we cannot, we will not, and we should not. I don’t think it will pass without those measures in there. I just don’t.” Rubio, along with other conservatives, has argued that the strategy on tightening border control should be drafted by members of Congress and not by the Obama administration or the Homeland Security Department.
The Florida senator cited the recent IRS scandal as a reason to take the initiative away from the White House. "The lack of trust in the federal government and in particular in this administration, makes it even harder to convince people that coming up with a plan like this on its own is good enough. So, maybe the solution is to have Congress actually write that plan for them," Rubio said.
The Senate is expected to begin a debate on the bill on June 10, and supporters of immigration reform hope the bill will get passed before Congress leaves for recess on July 4, a deadline that New York Sen. Chuck Schumer promised Sunday on Meet the Press. “Well, first we're going to put immigration on the floor starting on June 10. I predict it will pass the Senate by July 4," he said. "We're hoping to get 70 votes, up to 70 votes, which means a lot of Republicans. And we're willing to entertain amendments that don't damage the core principles of the bill, but improve the bill, just as we did in committee."
Schumer also said none of the recent controversies have affected the immigration debate. "These so-called scandals have not diverted us one iota. You have, on the Gang of Eight, three of the people who have been most critical of the president on some of these other issues. But I think the eight of us realize how important this is, more important probably than any of these scandals, to the future of America, for job growth, for the middle class."
The bill passed by the Judiciary Committee does not grant illegal immigrants a probationary legal status until the Homeland Security drafts a plan for the U.S. border. Those immigrants would also not be allowed to apply for green cards until a check system for employers becomes implemented and an electronic entry exit system is established at major airports and ports of entry.
After the Judiciary Committee approved the immigration bill, supporters of the bill had to fend off amendments from labor and business lobbyists, religious organizations, and law enforcement and civil rights' groups. The most controversial amendment fought for same-sex couples to petition for legal status for a spouse or partner, but the measure was dropped due to Republican threats that they would vote against the bill if the LGBT provision was included.
The bill was eventually passed by the committee. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of the Gang of Eight Republicans, expressed concerns about whether the bill's potential passage in the Senate would compel House members to do the same. "We can pass this out of the Senate," Flake said. "The question is, can we get enough votes to convince the House to vote." Flake also noted that the bipartisan group expects to face amendments on the Senate floor from Republicans who will question the bill on border security, tax breaks and exemptions for immigrants who qualify for legal status, and whether newly legalized immigrants will receive any federal benefits such as welfare or Medicaid.
With 55 Democrats in the Senate, supporters of immigration rights, now playing a numbers game, are aiming for one goal--to get immigration reform passed. According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, voters do not believe that Democrats and Republicans will be able to strike a deal on immigration, 71%-24%. The same poll also shows that 54% of American voters support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants--a significant change from the anti-immigrant sentiment in 2007, the last time Congress took up an immigration overhaul bill. Twelve percent also say these immigrants can stay but not become citizens and 29% say they should be deported.