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Byron York: Rush through Senate will kill trust in immigration reform

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Politics,Byron York,Politics Digest

When it is finally unveiled next week, the immigration reform proposal crafted by the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Eight will be long -- possibly 1,500 pages -- and complex, and it will call for far-reaching changes in important areas of American life. One would think the leadership of the Senate might want to talk about it.

Not so. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a longtime supporter of immigration reform, has vowed to push the bill through his committee "with all deliberate speed." When Sen. Marco Rubio, perhaps the key Republican in the Gang, called on Leahy to hold "multiple" hearings on the bill, Leahy flatly turned him down. The committee will hold just one more hearing on the bill, Leahy declared.

Now, it turns out that hearing, a session with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano scheduled for next week, might come just hours after the massive bill is unveiled, meaning no one outside the Gang will be truly familiar with what is in it.

Republicans are trying to find ways around the Leahy roadblock. Rubio is talking with other Senate committee chairmen in hopes they might hold hearings on the bill. But of course, those chairmen are all Democrats, so they might be in as much of a hurry as Leahy. Rubio can't count on more hearings there.

Rubio is also talking with the Senate's Republican Policy Committee, an all-GOP group, about the possibility of what might be called unilateral hearings on immigration. They wouldn't be real hearings -- won't be the authorized work of an actual committee -- but they might be a way to extend public discussion of the bill. Even that option, however, is still in the tentative stage.

The bottom line is that Republicans face an uphill battle just getting the Senate to fully consider, rather than rush through, one of the most important bills in recent years.

The move to hurry the bill into law is a terrible development, given the public's lack of trust in the government's ability, and willingness, to handle the immigration issue. A number of recent polls show that majorities of Americans favor legalization and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in this country. But they favor those outcomes only if the government secures the border and shuts off the flow of illegal immigration into the U.S. And they don't trust the government to do that.

In a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 63 percent of respondents said they believe the U.S. border with Mexico is "mostly not secure" or "totally not secure." Just 18 percent said the border is "mostly secure" or "totally secure."

In a different survey, pollster Scott Rasmussen found majorities who said the border should be secured before either the legalization of currently illegal immigrants or the creation of a path to citizenship. But when Rasmussen asked whether respondents believed the government will actually secure the border, a majority said no.

The Gang of Eight has to boost the trust level if immigration reform is to succeed. Right now, the group is promising unprecedented security measures and tightly constructed requirements to force the Department of Homeland Security to begin work on a plan to apprehend 90 percent of illegal border crossers and put 100 percent of the nearly 2,000-mile border under surveillance.

Gang members stress a plan to give the department five years to get the work done, and if it is not done by then, to have a security committee of border-state governors and others essentially take over the work until it is completed. Meanwhile, they say, there will be no path to citizenship unless the job is not only finished but proven finished.

The same is true for a new requirement that the government track millions of immigrants who came here legally, with visas, but never left as required. If there is not an entry and exit tracking system fully in place, they say, then there will be no path to citizenship. On top of all that, there is a planned system to require E-Verify in every business in the country.

The problem is, these are promises that have been made before, and the border is not secure. The Gang of Eight has to convince the public that its proposal actually will be enforced, actually will bring real border security. The only way to begin to build that confidence is by a thorough debate on how it should be done. And on that, Senate Democrats have gotten off to a very bad start.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner