New York Times
By Julia Preston
May 21, 2013
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Tuesday opened the fifth day of debate on broad legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws on an optimistic note by suggesting that the session could be the last.
“There is a chance we can get done today,” said Mr. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, whose aides had warned that a long day of work would most likely run into the night.
The committee was expected to take up some of the more difficult and controversial parts of the bill: a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, an agricultural worker program and the future flow of legal immigrants.
Another focus will be on whether Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, can strike a deal with the bipartisan group of eight senators that drafted the legislation and offer his amendments on a visa program for high-tech workers. Mr. Hatch has signaled that if his amendments are approved, he might be willing to vote for the bill, support that Democrats consider crucial to help give the legislation some bipartisan momentum as it makes its way to the Senate floor.
Another open question is whether Mr. Leahy will offer his Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), which would allow same-sex partners of American citizens to become legal permanent residents. Mr. Leahy’s intention is one of the best-kept secrets on the committee, and for good reason, as it will put his fellow Democrats in a bind no matter what it is.
Senators Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer of New York, both Democrats and members of the bipartisan group that wrote the bill, are under pressure from parts of their constituencies to support Mr. Leahy’s provision. But Republicans in the bipartisan group have publicly and privately made clear that they view the adoption of any same-sex protections as a reason to walk away from the entire measure, which Mr. Durbin and Mr. Schumer desperately want passed.
Dozens of conservative leaders and activists signed an open letter, published on Tuesday, that denounced the bill, saying the Senate “would do better to start over from scratch.” The conservatives said the bill was “bloated and unwieldy,” comparing it to President Obama’s health care bill, and they warned that it could bankrupt the nation’s entitlement programs.
They said the measure “rewards lawbreakers and punishes law enforcement.”
Many members of the conservative pantheon signed the letter, including Laura Ingraham, the talk-show host; David Horowitz, a conservative intellectual; Michelle Malkin, the commentator; Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Eagle Forum; Daniel Pipes, a security analyst; and Judson Phillips, a founder of Tea Party Nation. Many names of local Tea Party leaders were also on the list of signers.
Notably few Hispanics endorsed the broadside. Also, the number of conservative evangelical Christian pastors and groups was limited; this year many evangelical groups, including the National Evangelical Association, have come out in favor of the immigration overhaul.
In other developments at the committee meeting, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, withdrew his amendment that attempted to move the cutoff date for illegal immigrants who could apply for provisional legal status. Under a compromise carefully negotiated by the bill’s co-authors, those immigrants will be eligible to apply only if they were in the country before Dec. 31, 2011.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican who is not on the Judiciary Committee but is a member of the bipartisan group, insisted on that date in the negotiations. Mr. Blumenthal tried to move the date to April 17, 2013, saying that more than 400,000 immigrants would be left out by the earlier cutoff. But the bipartisan group members on the Judiciary Committee remained determined to protect the core agreements in their bill.
An amendment by Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a Republican who strongly opposes the bill, would have blocked immigrants using a taxpayer number, rather than a Social Security number, from obtaining a low-income tax credit. The amendment was voted down by a vote of 10 to 8, with Democrats arguing that children who are citizens could be affected by it. But the debate led to a moment of indignation by Mr. Leahy, who vented his frustration with Mr. Sessions.
“There seems to be kind of an attitude here that if somebody comes here as an immigrant, they are trying to game the system,” Mr. Leahy said. “I totally reject that. I know so many people in my home state of Vermont. These are hard-working, law-abiding people.”
Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, offered a series of amendments just before noon. One would have required illegal immigrants to prove that they had paid all of the back taxes they owed, not just the ones assessed by the Internal Revenue Service.
Democrats, however, argued that Mr. Lee’s provision would discourage immigrants from coming forward. Mr. Schumer said he agreed that it was important that illegal immigrants pay all of the back taxes they owed, and that he would be willing to work with Mr. Lee to find a different way to ensure that all taxes were paid.
Ultimately, Mr. Lee’s amendment failed in a voice vote.
Mr. Lee then introduced another provision that would have prevented illegal immigrants who had either absconded or tried to re-enter the country after receiving deportation orders from applying for legal status.
Mr. Lee acknowledged that it might seem unfair to punish those who — other than having the poor luck of getting caught — had done nothing different from the 11 million other illegal immigrants who would bw eligible to apply for legal status under the legislation. But, he said, “It’s not unfair to require people to comply with the law.”
That provision also failed on a voice vote.
Just after noon, Mr. Leahy ended the morning session with an upbeat progress report. He said that only 25 amendments remained to be considered, of 301 initially offered. Doing the math, Mr. Leahy said that 90 percent of the amendments were done.
“That’s not bad,” he said.
Later in the day, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, posed a frontal challenge to the bill, proposing an amendment to eliminate the path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Mr. Cruz’s amendment would have allowed those immigrants to gain provisional legal status and to go on to become legal permanent residents. But at that point they would have no opportunity to apply for citizenship.
“What I would do is remove the pathway to citizenship so there are real consequences for not respecting the rule of law,” Mr. Cruz said.
Mr. Cruz’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 13 to 5, after prompting an impassioned debate that displayed the core differences among the lawmakers.
“If we don’t have a path to citizenship, there is no reform,” Mr. Schumer said. “We cannot have an American where people come to work and cannot ever become full citizens.”
Mr. Blumenthal said, “We would be diminished as a people by the kind of second-class citizenship that would be established.”
But Mr. Cruz foreshadowed an argument that is likely to arise in the overhaul debate in the Republican-controlled House. “Tying immigration reform hostage to a path to citizenship is not a strategy to pass a bill,” he said. “It is a strategy to create partisan division.”