Immigration Reform Heads to Senate Floor: Where It Stands

The Gang of Eight bill heads to the floor virtually unscathed.

May 21, 2013, 7:37 PM

May 21, 2013— -- The Gang of Eight can breath a sigh of relief. For now.

Their immigration reform bill in the Senate has made its way through the two-week process of adding amendments without any changes that would significantly alter its original make-up.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill on a bipartisan 13-5 vote on Tuesday evening, and now the landmark bill will head to the Senate floor.

After the Judiciary Committee considered more than 300 amendments, the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants remains intact. And conservative attempts to make legalization more difficult -- while numerous and drawn out (IMHO) -- were largely swatted away.

One major sticking point surfaced on Tuesday night, though: an amendment that would have given gay and lesbian couples equal treatment under immigration law.

Republicans backing the bill said they wouldn't support it, and that the amendment would be a deal-breaker. Democrats who support same-sex marriage agreed that it should be shelved for the moment.

"If we try to redefine marriage within the immigration debate, it would mean that the bill would fall apart and the coalition would fall apart," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), explaining why he wouldn't support the measure.

The amendment was withheld, saving debate on immigration equality for the floor of the Senate, where the bill is expected to land in early June.

Here are a few of the key ways the immigration package has changed on its way to a vote in Senate:

1. The Tech Deal

The immigration overhaul would potentially triple the annual number of temporary visas for workers in highly skilled fields like engineering and technology.

But big tech companies -- which have led lobbying efforts around immigration reform in recent years -- wanted more.

Specifically, they wanted to loosen requirements around bringing in foreign workers, so that some companies wouldn't have to first seek out an equivalent U.S.-born employee before hiring a temporary worker from abroad.

An amendment offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on Tuesday accomplished that, among smaller gains for tech companies. Hatch struck a deal with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and the two introduced the amendment together.

The trade-off: Hatch would support the bill as it left the Judiciary Committee -- the first Republican senator to do so, aside from the four GOP members of the Gang of Eight.

2. Same-Sex Couples

Federal immigration law currently discriminates against same-sex couples. They don't receive the same rights as heterosexual couples, so a gay U.S. citizen isn't able to sponsor his immigrant husband for a visa, even if they're married under state law.

That's because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) bars the federal government from recognizing marriages that aren't between a man and a woman.

The Gang of Eight's immigration bill didn't change that. Several Republican senators backing the legislation said such a provision for gay and lesbian couples would kill the bill.

But an amendment drafted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would have given same-sex couples equal standing in the immigration system. But citing Republican objections, even Democrats like Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said they would reluctantly vote against it.

"I believe in my heart of hearts, what you're doing is the right and just thing," Durbin said. "But I believe this is the wrong moment. This is the wrong bill."

Leahy withheld that amendment "with a heavy heart" on Tuesday, avoiding a potential showdown on the Judiciary Committee that would have split the bipartisan Gang of Eight that's guiding the bill through the Senate.

The issue isn't off the table. It will likely come back up when the immigration bill heads to the floor of the Senate. But the amendment could face a difficult, if not impossible, road to passage on the floor. There, it could be held up by a 60-vote threshold for passage.

3. More Immigration Enforcement, But Nothing Huge

During the "mark up" of the bill, the Senate committee passed several Republican amendments strengthening immigration enforcement, but nothing too dramatic.

On the border security front, one amendment would call for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to submit a plan to reach 90 percent effectiveness in stopping unauthorized crossers along the entire border. Previously, the bill had only called for reaching that goal in "high-risk" areas.

Another amendment would require DHS to install a fingerprint-based system to track immigrants leaving the U.S. The system would need to be up-and-running in 30 airports across the country within six years.

That lets the "Gang of Eight" say that they've made the bill more conservative, without fundamentally changing it.

4. Defeating the Toughest Measures

While Democrats made some relatively small concessions on immigration enforcement, they shot down dozens of amendments that would have made a road to legalization harder for people without papers.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) stood out as particularly blunt in his opposition to illegal immigration. One of his amendments would have blocked citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Another would have kept them from receiving any means-tested benefit, even if they gained legal status. Both of those amendments failed.

Sens. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Charles Grassley (Iowa) led a campaign of attrition against the immigration bill, piling on 126 amendments between them, and drawing out discussions on items that had no chance of being adopted.

But in the end, they mainly just slowed the process. Their strongest measures weren't adopted, and most of their amendments were either defeated or withdrawn.

What Happens Next

The Senate bill is expected to reach the floor of the Senate in early June, and supporters hope to see it pass by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, an immigration bill in the House still hasn't materialized, although representatives working on the legislation say they've reached an agreement, and could have more details in the coming weeks.