Why Democrats Made a Concession on Border Security

An immigration reform amendment broadens the scope of border security.

ByTed Hesson
May 09, 2013, 9:27 AM

May 9, 2013— -- See, we gave you more border security.

That's what immigration reform supporters will be able to say to skeptical conservatives as the push to overhaul the nation's immigration laws continues.

Amendments were made to the Senate's reform bill in a judiciary committee meeting on Thursday, and one of the biggest changes was to broaden the scope of border security.

One adopted amendment, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), calls for the federal government to develop a plan to secure the entire border, instead of focusing on specific "high-risk areas," as outlined in the legislation.

Here's what that means, practically:

According to the Senate bill, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would need to develop a plan to achieve 90 percent effectiveness in stopping unauthorized crossers in certain areas where a lot of people are caught crossing.

That goal is tied to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

Until a plan is submitted to Congress, immigrants won't be able to register for the legal status that immigration reform would create. If the plan isn't "substantially operational" within a decade, it could block citizenship for those same immigrants.

With the new amendment, DHS will need to devise a plan to reach 90 percent effectiveness along the entire border.

So how did an amendment like this pass the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee?

There are a couple reasons.

First, the new standard probably won't be that much more difficult to achieve than the one in the original bill. The federal government is already being tasked with securing the high-risk parts of the border. So locking down the quieter parts is doable.

More importantly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the bill's sponsors, has said that the border security provisions will need to be strengthened to get it through the House, where Republicans have a majority.

This lets Rubio and other pro-reform conservatives counter the idea that the reform bill is weak on border enforcement. But at the same time, it isn't so burdensome a change that is would kill support for the bill among Democrats.

The committee did shoot down several amendments that would have challenged the core principles of the bill as it was envisioned by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight."

Amendments introduced by Grassley and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) would have blocked legalization for most undocumented immigrants until certain border security goals were met. Those proposals were handily defeated.

Border hawks on the committee weren't happy about that. In a spat with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) toward the end of the meeting, Cruz aired his feelings.

"The committee has voted down every serious border security amendment that has been presented here today," he said. "In my view, the current draft presents merely a fig leaf on border security."

While border security was a focus of the meeting, the committee touched on a number of other issues, including how the federal government interacts with state and local law enforcement on immigration.

One amendment that was adopted could potentially target jurisdictions where local and state immigration laws conflict with federal law (think Arizona's SB 1070).

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), says that the federal government can't reimburse a state for an immigrant's detention if the immigrant was apprehended through "unlawful conduct," as defined by the Attorney General. That could make states think twice about pushing the legal envelope with immigration laws.

The meeting was relatively workmanlike except for one controversial foot-in-mouth moment from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a sponsor of the reform bill.

While debating an amendment, he gave his take on the difference between immigrants coming from Canada and Latin America:

"Canada is a place where people like to stay," he said. "The people coming across the southern border live in hell holes. They don't like it; they want to come here."

Graham later recanted.

"I wasn't slandering Mexico," he said. "I was just talking about all the places people want to leave for whatever reason."

Updated, 11:00 p.m. A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that if border security goals were not "met" in 10 years, it could block a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants. The border security plan would need to be "subtantially operational," according to the language of the bill, but the goals would not necessarily need to be "met."

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