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Pressure builds as Senate opens marathon immigration debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON -- With the White House stepping up the pressure, conservative lawmakers firing salvos, and one senator going so far as to deliver his remarks in Spanish, the Senate's long-anticipated debate began this week on an immigration bill that is a high priority but faces an uncertain future in Congress.

While U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., urged backers to rally around the Senate bill, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he had "serious concerns" about border security that might lead him to oppose the bill unless it is amended. And U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, warned of "poison pill" amendments that some GOP senators are offering to try to kill the bill.

There will be lots of time to debate amendments, dozens of which will be offered over the next few weeks in the Senate. "The bill went from 900 pages to 1,900 pages" after changes by the Judiciary Committee, Blunt said. "So what the bill's going to look like a month from now is a pretty hard thing to say."  

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama turned up the heat on lawmakers by appearing at a White House immigration event and asserting that "Congress needs to act" now on comprehensive immigration reform.

"We’ve got a good bipartisan bill moving through the Senate that strengthens our borders and reforms the system so that everybody is playing by the same rules -- reform that will allow us to continue to attract talent from all around the world, the best and the brightest," Obama said in Boston. "And whenever Republicans are ready to work with me, I’m ready to work with them."

The debate begins

The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday (82 to 15) to start debate on the immigration bill, but so many potential amendments are stacked up that it may take a couple of weeks or more to get to a final vote. And if it survives the Senate, immigration reform faces a new round of hurdles in the House.

While proponents say they are confident that the Senate will approve a version of the immigration bill, a number of conservative GOP opponents -- including U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. -- want severely to weaken or scuttle the legislation.

Even U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a "Group of Eight" member and a major sponsor of the bill, has said the bill likely won't pass in Congress "unless we get people's confidence that we are going to secure the border." Criticized by some conservatives, Rubio says he may back some GOP amendments to strengthen the bill’s enforcement provisions as well as its approach to boosting security on the U.S. border with Mexico.

Judged by their prior comments, three of the four senators from Missouri and Illinois appeared to be leaning toward supporting the Senate bill, although they first want to see which amendments are tacked on.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters that "a lot of 'poison pill' amendments" are being proposed as a way "to destroy the ability to pass this legislation." She said, "This is going to be a slog, and we're going to debate this for several weeks," with hundreds of amendments offered and "dozens and dozens debated and voted on."

In general, said McCaskill, the Senate bill seems balanced, having been developed as a result of bipartisan "Group of Eight" negotiations -- which included Durbin -- and "a very deliberative, open, and transparent process" in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Everybody's got something to hate in it, which means it's probably a pretty good bill," she said.

"I believe it strikes the appropriate balance between enforcement against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, and more security, and also making sure people who violated the rules and violated the law pay a penalty and a price and then go to the back of the line" for legal immigration.

Earlier on Wednesday, McCaskill also said she was "comfortable that nothing in this bill represents amnesty" for immigrants here illegally. "I know what punishment looks like. I know what paying a price for your illegal conduct looks like," McCaskill said. "And certainly those things are in this bill: penalties and a price for violating the rules and coming to this country outside of legal channels."

Durbin, a champion of the "DREAM Act" for a dozen years and one of the eight senators who helped forge the compromise immigration bill, said this week that it is crucial for Congress to revamp immigration laws this year.

"Let’s pass this bill. Let’s have a debate with a fulsome exchange of ideas and amendments," said Durbin. "Let’s honor the people in our families who had the courage to get up and come to this great nation, face great sacrifice, success and build the nation that we call home."

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., is one of the as yet uncommitted Senate Republicans who is thought to be likely to back the bill. He told a Chicago radio station recently that immigration reform has "a bright future" in the Senate, but he wants to examine its border security provisions and he may offer an amendment to make sure that U.S. soldiers in combat become citizens.

“I will be offering an amendment that says if you are awarded a combat infantry badge that shows you have been under fire, you are automatically a U.S. citizen,” Kirk said. “Under the principal, if you fight with us, you are one of us.”

In a statement Tuesday, Blunt explained that his vote to move forward with debate on the immigration bill does not necessarily mean that he will support it.

"I voted to move forward with debating this legislation because immigration reform is an important problem we need to address, but that does not change the fact that I still have very serious concerns about the underlying Senate bill," Blunt said.

"I believe there are ways to improve the base bill, with an eye toward meeting three important goals: first securing our borders, then fulfilling our legitimate workforce needs, and determining how we deal with people who come to the country illegally or overstay. I plan to co-sponsor several amendments during this debate that would help meet these goals. However, I will not vote for final passage of any immigration legislation that fails to meet these critical objectives."

Blunt told reporters Wednesday that he planned to cosponsor separate amendments by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Tex., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that aim to gauge the effectiveness of border control efforts, to require Congress (rather than the administration) to approve reports on the border activities.

While Blunt acknowledged that "the amount of effort and focus on the border has grown" in recent years, he said, "there are other things that could be done to measure the effectiveness of what happens at the borders." He says a 100 percent "awareness of what happens at the border is possible, and we're not there yet.

"We need to be stopping at least 90 percent of those attempting to cross the border [illegally], and then looking at the workplace and other places to deal with people who are here illegally," Blunt said.  

When Congress passed the last major immigration revamp in 1986, Blunt said, "the tradeoff then was: 'We're going to secure the border, and people here could stay.' And that clearly was not what happened" in terms of the border.

"And in 1996, we put in the law that there would be a requirement for biometric visas, so you would know if people who had come into the country were leaving the country. The law says we have to do that, and that's never been done."

Impact on Missouri

Although Missouri probably won't be affected by immigration reform as much as many other states, St. Louis experts on immigration and refugees are keeping a close eye on the Senate debate.

Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute of Metropolitan St. Louis, said she has some reservations about the Senate bill but feels strongly that Congress must take action to fix the many problems of the nation's "broken" immigration system.

"Like most Americans, I have mixed feelings about the proposed immigration legislation," Crosslin said in an interview. "It has something in it for just about everyone, and yet it will satisfy practically no one."

"The immigration system that we have right now is broken. We have to have a thorough and really important debate about it, and change it for the sake of Americans and those who come to America -- both now and in the future."

The political ramifications of the immigration debate are clear to both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. During this week's debate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., became the first to give an entire Senate speech in Spanish when his discussed the immigration bill.

"We are going to have hours upon hours of debate about this on the floor of the Senate, and taking 15 minutes to explain the bill in Spanish just seemed like a good idea," said Kaine, who learned the language while helping run a Catholic school in Honduras. "Latinos have so much invested in the outcome of the bill, people ought to know what the bill is about."

While McCaskill said the Senate bill has bipartisan backing, Senate GOP Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opposes the legislation in its current form and will back several amendments. McCaskill is expecting lots of them, although Senate leaders had not yet approved the full list.

"I will look forward to the amendment process," McCaskill said. "I am sure it will be vigorous and I am hopeful that we’ll ultimately pass a bill that will do once and for all some reform in this area that desperately needs it."

If she could change one part of the bill, Crosslin said she would reinstate the green card "lottery" system -- removed in the current version -- "because it has offered an opportunity to people who did not fit in other categories.

"Right now, the categories are very siloed, so if you were, for instance, a teacher from central Africa who didn't have relatives in the U.S. or didn't have a high-level skill that would allow you to apply for an H1B visa, your ability to come to this country was limited to the lottery."

Missouri is among the states "with lower numbers of undocumented" immigrants, Crosslin said, although the exact numbers are not known. "And the St. Louis region has fewer than most like-sized metropolitan areas." Missouri's foreign-born population is relatively small, estimated at less than 4 percent in the 2010 census.

The immigrants and refugees helped by the International Institute would be not as much affected by the legislation as, say, undocumented immigrants. "Refugees' status is already known when they arrive in this country and they are on the citizenship track."

However, Crosslin said, St. Louis' immigrants certainly would benefit from "a general attitudinal change on the part of the broad American population toward immigrants."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.