AUSTIN, Texas -- A key Republican senator said Thursday that he wants to demonstrate that the U.S.-Mexico border is secure before considering a comprehensive immigration reform package.
"I think there has to be some conditions satisfied," Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) told a gathering of conservative activists and state lawmakers sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "One is that people need to know we've done everything we can do to secure the border."
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The senator's comments are an indication that immigration reform remains a touchy subject for many Republicans in Congress -- despite efforts to find consensus on core issues -- and that passage of a comprehensive reform bill that includes legalization for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is far from guaranteed this year.
Cornyn is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the nation's immigration laws, and is expected to play a major role in any effort to take up immigration reform.
The "border security first" refrain has long been used by Republicans to stymie progress on immigration bills that provide relief for the undocumented, according to pro-immigration reform groups. In response to Cornyn's remarks, the immigrant-rights advocacy group America's Voice tweeted, "typical."
Like-minded groups have rebutted the notion that the border security remains lax, citing a recent study that shows the federal government spent $18 billion last year on all immigration enforcement efforts, more than all other federal law enforcement efforts combined. And an April 2012Pew Hispanic Center report showed that net immigration between the U.S. and Mexico has reached zero.
Cornyn acknowledged that "the numbers are way down," but he said that among the 340,000 people detained trying to cross illegally per year, a handful hail from countries such as China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. That demonstrates that the "porous" border could leave the U.S. "vulnerable to the sorts of attacks that we sustained on 9/11," he said.
The senator, however, did not specifically lay out what criteria he believes would indicate the border is secure, but said he is "convinced we could get there with an adequate effort."
Should that happen, Cornyn said he would be open to a guest-worker program that would allow agricultural workers and others to be employed in the U.S. legally on a temporary basis.
He also indicated he would consider supporting a pathway to legal status, but not a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
"Someone after a certain period of time on probation could work here and they could stay in the United States, but not necessarily be a citizen," he said.
Cornyn chastised Democrats for insisting that a pathway to citizenship be included in a comprehensive reform bill, calling it the opposition's "holy grail." He accused Democrats of using that as pretext to torpedo other immigration bills, such as a proposal to expand visas to foreigners who earn advanced science and technology degrees in the U.S.
"I think this is like Lucy and the football. Every time we come up to kick the football, Lucy pulls away the ball and Charlie ends up on his back," he said.