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On immigration, an opposition strategy emerges: Hold Gang of Eight to its own words

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York,Politics Digest,Immigration

Opponents of the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill have focused on a multitude of weaknesses in the legislation. Its border security triggers are ineffective, they say. Same for its internal enforcement provisions. It would allegedly lower wages for low-skill American workers. It would reward immigrants for the act of coming to the United States illegally. And so on.

But with the Senate scheduled to take up debate on the Gang's bill Tuesday, a new opposition strategy is emerging: to expose the weaknesses of the bill by holding Gang members to account for their own words. In countless public statements, Gang members have touted the “tough” measures in the bill. But it’s common knowledge among opponents that several of the purportedly tough provisions are weakened by waivers and exceptions. What if opponents came up with amendments that hewed closely to the Gang members’ statements of purpose — but took out the waivers and exceptions and replaced them with tight requirements? What would happen then?

For example, Sen. Marco Rubio, the leading Republican on the Gang of Eight, has often said the bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to develop “100 percent awareness” of the U.S.-Mexico border — that is, to keep all of the border under surveillance at all times — and apprehend 90 percent of those who attempt to cross the border illegally. A “Myth vs. Fact” press release from Rubio’s office shortly after the Gang of Eight bill was introduced called for “100 percent awareness and 90 percent success in apprehending those trying to cross the border.” Unless those goals are met, Rubio and other supporters have said, formerly illegal immigrants will not be permitted to move from registered provisional immigrant status to legal permanent resident status and then, later, to U.S. citizenship.

But the bill as written includes no such requirement; immigrants can be awarded legal permanent resident status even if the security goals have not been met. So now, Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, is preparing to introduce an amendment that not only reaffirms the 100 percent-90 percent structure — it requires that those standards must be met before any registered provisional immigrants would be allowed to apply for legal permanent resident status. It’s just like the  Gang of Eight bill, except that it would actually demand that the border be secure before legal permanent resident status is granted. Who would not agree?

Well, a number of Democrats, and some Republicans, too. “The problem you’ll have if you try to enhance border security in an unachievable way and tie it to the path to citizenship, I think the deal falls apart,” Republican Gang member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the Washington Post recently. Some Democrats have already suggested the Cornyn amendment would be a complete deal breaker.

So the effect of the Cornyn amendment would be to suggest that some of the tough talk that has gone into the promotion of the Gang's bill is just talk. “We are exposing vulnerabilities,” says one GOP aide. “You say 100 percent and 90 percent are good? Let’s put it to the test and actually mandate it. If you then say that’s unattainable, that raises a lot of questions about your sincerity or the ability of your legislation to do what it says it does.”

There are a number of possibilities for Cornyn-style amendments dealing with other provisions of the bill. For example, both Democrats and Republicans have claimed that the bill requires formerly-illegal immigrants to learn English as a condition of acquiring legal permanent resident status. “They will have to, for the first time in U.S. history, learn English to be able to even become a permanent resident,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., on the day the Gang introduced its work in January. “Before any of these 11 million could earn a green card, they would be required to … learn English,” Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the first GOP non-Gang member to endorse the bill, wrote on Sunday.

But the bill does not require any immigrant to demonstrate any level of proficiency in English as a condition of earning a green card. While the bill says immigrants must meet a standard laid out in the Immigration and Nationality Act that they “demonstrate an understanding of the English language,” it then adds that those immigrants who don’t understand English should be “satisfactorily pursuing a course of study…to achieve an understanding of English.” There’s no requirement that they actually achieve that understanding as a condition of earning legal permanent resident status.

So what if a Republican filed an amendment to require that immigrants demonstrate an understanding of English before being eligible for green cards? No waivers, no conditions — just demonstrate an understanding of English. It’s no more than Gang members have said — but if it were actually required it might well upset the careful balance of the agreement.

And what about the Border Commission? When the bill was first introduced, Rubio and others claimed that if the Department of Homeland Security did not achieve border security, then a commission, made up of border-state governors, would have the authority to do the job itself. “If, in five years, the plan has not reached 100 percent awareness and 90 percent apprehension, the Department of Homeland Security will lose control of the issue and it will be turned over to the border governors to finish the job,” Rubio told radio host Mark Levin shortly after the bill was introduced.

But there are no such provisions in the bill. In the legislation, the Border Commission’s purpose would be to make “recommendations to the President, the Secretary, and Congress on policies to achieve and maintain the border security goal.” The commission would have six months to write a report “setting forth specific recommendations.” And then, when the report is finished, the commission “shall terminate 30 days after the date on which the report is submitted.” That’s all it does. There’s nothing in the bill requiring the commission to finish the job of border security, and indeed it would have no authority to do so.

So what if a Republican filed an amendment that would empower the commission to enforce border security, stipulating that the 100 percent-90 percent structure must be in place before any green cards are awarded? It seems likely some supporters of the bill would strongly oppose such a requirement.

The bottom line is that the Gang’s advocates have made a number of statements attributing strong measures to the bill that were not actually in the bill. So what if Republicans tried to insert those measures into the legislation on their own? The proposals would almost certainly be voted down, but some of the weaknesses in the bill would be exposed for all to see.

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