POLITICS

John Cornyn opens new front in immigration fight

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Photo - WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 19: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), center, speaks to the press with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), right, and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) after the weekly Senate Republicans policy luncheon on March 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate is expected to pass a revised continuing resolution and send their edits back to the House in order to prevent a government shutdown next week, but any action in the Senate may be delayed until later in the week. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 19: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), center, speaks to the press with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), right, and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) after the weekly Senate Republicans policy luncheon on March 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate is expected to pass a revised continuing resolution and send their edits back to the House in order to prevent a government shutdown next week, but any action in the Senate may be delayed until later in the week. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)
Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York,Immigration,Senate

Some opponents of the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill are giving poor reviews to a new move by Republican Sen. John Cornyn to toughen the legislation with more enforcement requirements. “This amendment would change nothing of consequence,” writes Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. “It’s yet another attempt to dupe conservatives into excusing a vote for the Schumer-Rubio bill.”

The fundamental problem the critics see with Cornyn’s amendment — which has only been released in outline, not in final legislative language — is that it does not change the Gang bill’s basic structure. Under that structure, legalization of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country will come first, followed by the implementation of enhanced security measures, followed by a path to citizenship. Any bill that puts legalization before security will be unacceptable to a significant number of Republicans, especially those in the House.

Cornyn would leave that sequence unchanged. But his amendment would impose strict requirements that border security actually be in place before the last phase in the process, the path to citizenship, begins. The current Gang of Eight bill does not do that. Under the Gang of Eight proposal, notes a Cornyn aide, there are no real, binding triggers. “The Department of Homeland Security is not required to do anything except submit a plan and certify that they have implemented that plan,” the aide says. “Content doesn’t matter.”

Cornyn would require that not only the Homeland Security secretary but the GAO comptroller general certify that four requirements have been met before immigrants can be given “lawful permanent resident” status, which is the big step toward citizenship. The four requirements are 1) that the government have “100 percent situational awareness,” that is, complete surveillance capability, of the entire southern border; 2) that the apprehension rate of attempted illegal crossers be at least 90 percent; 3) that a biometric (not the weaker biographic, as in the Gang bill) identification system be fully operational and in use at all air and land points of entry; and 4) that the E-Verify system be implemented nationwide.

“It is important to underscore what a radical change this would mean as far as our approach to the border is concerned,” says the aide. “If this amendment is accepted, you completely change this nation’s approach to border security.”

There’s no doubt the Cornyn amendment will have far tougher and more tangible security requirements than the current Gang bill. But it is still legalization-first. Under the Cornyn plan, legalization of the 11 million would take place before the security measures listed above are put in place. And that is precisely the problem for the critics, and also for millions of American voters. Those voters, especially the ones who vote in Republican primaries, just don’t trust the government to put new security measures in place once legalization is already a done deal.

The problem, says the Cornyn aide, is that a security-first arrangement is just not politically possible. “You could put legalization contingent on triggers on the front end,” the aide says. “But that’s never going to pass Congress. Democrats are never going to vote for that. Republicans are never going to be unified on that. It’s never going to happen. You’re never going to be able to say, ‘enforcement first.’ It’s a purist position. It’s never going to become law.”

But that is still what many Republicans, including many in the House of Representatives, want. And Cornyn himself seemed to recognize that in an op-ed introducing his proposal published in the Dallas Morning News Wednesday. The Gang of Eight’s border-security triggers “are talking points disguised as policy,” Cornyn wrote. “Legalization of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States would be activated by meaningless promises rather than concrete results. Haven’t we heard enough of that from Washington?”

Cornyn’s words suggested he intended to do away with legalization-first. But in fact he would not require that security improvements actually be in place before legalization. Just the opposite; his proposal keeps the legalization-first structure of the Gang bill. So why did he specifically criticize legalization-first? “I don’t have a great answer for you on that,” the aide says. “I don’t think we’re trying to pull a fast one on anyone here.”

The real value of the Cornyn amendment, the aide stressed, is not only that it would improve security measures in the current bill. It is that by putting the actual, provable implementation of border security before the path to citizenship begins, it will test Senate Democrats’ commitment to border security. “What the Democrats and their activists groups want, their Holy Grail, is citizenship for the 11 million,” says the aide. “They desperately want this.” Cornyn’s amendment basically says to Democrats, if you really want citizenship, then you can agree to real security. If Democrats say no to Cornyn, it will show what most Republicans already believe about them, which is that they don’t really want tougher border security. “If the Democrats want to reject our amendment, then it shows their true colors,” says the aide.

The Cornyn office promises to release the final language of the amendment in the next day or so. But parts of it will resemble an amendment Cornyn already introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That amendment was defeated on a 12-6 vote, a vote in which all Democrats plus the two committee Republicans who are also on the Gang of Eight, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake, voted against Cornyn.

Cornyn’s team has no illusions about the amendment’s chances of success in the full Senate. Some Democrats have already expressed opposition to the amendment, and others will surely follow. With a majority in the Senate, Democrats certainly have the power to block the amendment. If they do, Cornyn says they have lost his vote for comprehensive reform. “Unless these flaws are corrected,” Cornyn wrote in his op-ed, meaning the parts of the Gang bill his amendment is designed to fix, “I will not be able to support the legislation.”

Finally, it seems likely Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican leader on the Gang effort, will embrace Cornyn’s amendment as a way to make the “improvements” he says his bill needs. Indeed, Politico quoted a Rubio aide saying that Cornyn had been working with Rubio on the amendment “for weeks.” But Cornyn’s office is quick to say that the amendment is not a joint production. “Marco Rubio had 0.00 input into the drafting of our amendment or the concept of our amendment,” says one. “This amendment started and finished with John Cornyn and this office. No other member, no other staff, no other outside group.”

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