WASHINGTON – Memo to supporters of bipartisan legislation moving to the Senate floor: Make sure you stress that immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally would have to work, learn English, pass a background check and, especially, pay taxes before they could gain citizenship.
Emphasize that 100 percent of the U.S.-Mexican border will be put under surveillance, that immigrants who gain legal status won’t be eligible for welfare “for over a decade” and that anyone entering the United States unlawfully in the future will be barred from legal status. Don’t forget to tag critics of the bill as defenders of a status quo that’s unpopular with the public.
That’s the poll-tested advice distributed to Senate Democrats recently on a measure that offers the best chance in years to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, at the same time it gives President Barack Obama an opportunity for a landmark second-term domestic triumph.
It may sound simple, given that a bipartisan group of eight senators drafted the bill and then shepherded it through the Senate Judiciary Committee; that the White House, organized labor and the Chamber of Commerce all support the measure; and that many Republican political strategists want the GOP to show a more welcoming face to Hispanic voters.
It won’t be.
Presidential ambitions alone will see to that, as Sen. Marco Rubio, for one, attempts a political straddle while other potential GOP presidential candidates firmly oppose the measure. The Florida Republican helped negotiate the bipartisan bill now headed to the full Senate, and recently has called for changes as he tries to keep faith with tea party supporters and other conservatives who will vote in the 2016 primaries and caucuses.
Internal divisions in the Republican party, deeply held differences over policy, concerns over costs and more add to the complexity of legislation that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said must come to a final vote by July 4.
“In truth, the bill is amnesty first and a promise of enforcement later,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Friday, previewing points he and other conservative opponents intend to make over the next three weeks.
The bill’s requirement for payment of back taxes “is toothless,” the promised steps to secure the border “will not work” and millions of immigrants currently in the country illegally would qualify for welfare in five years, Sessions said. The measure “actually weakens current law in quite a number of significant areas” when it comes to immigration cases tried in the courts, he added.
Sessions derided the bipartisan coalition behind the measure as a collection of outside groups that do not represent the national interest.
In a reflection of the GOP divide, he took issue with Karl Rove, the former top strategist for President George W. Bush, whose own attempt at immigration overhaul flamed out in 2007.
Writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, Rove warned Republicans to be mindful of solid public support both for secure borders and for a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.
He urged GOP lawmakers to avoid use of the term “amnesty,” which he said is “forgiveness of wrongdoing without penalty.”
The legislation imposes financial costs on immigrants now in the country illegally who seek citizenship.
At its controversial core, the legislation creates a 13-year route to citizenship for an estimated 11.5 millionimmigrants currently in the United States illegally. It also sets border security goals that the government must meet before any change in legal status is granted to immigrants.
As drafted, the legislation also creates a low-skilled guest-worker program, expands the number of visas available for high-tech workers and de-emphasizes family ties in the system for legal immigration that has been in place for decades.
In the background are questions about the economic impact of the legislation at a time federal deficits are high and the economy is mounting a slow recovery from recession.
The Congressional Budget Office has yet to estimate the legislation’s impact on the deficit, although supporters acknowledge that changes will be necessary if the agency ultimately predicts the measure would result in additional red ink.
Sessions and others say it will.
“Since an overwhelming number of the workers here today are lower-skilled that are illegal ... you can expect their incomes to be low, they’ll qualify for the earned income tax credit, for Medicaid, and program after program, food stamps and others,” Sessions said Friday.
He cited a study by the conservative Heritage Foundation estimating that government costs for individuals whose residency status will be made legal will add $6.3 trillion to the deficit over 50 years.
Sessions didn’t say so, but the study has been widely criticized from the left and right. It was partially authored by an economist whose 2009 dissertation claimed immigrants have lower IQs than the “white native population” in the United States.
Also looming as the debate moves onto a more national stage are scarcely submerged racial tensions.
Both Sessions and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, referred to them Friday. Some on the other side of the issue touched on race when the Republican-controlled House voted Thursday to resume deportation of immigrantsbrought to the United States illegally as children, many of them from Mexico or other Central or South American countries.
Supporters of the legislation sometimes claim that its opponents are “somehow anti-immigrant, or you’re an uncompassionate person, that your heart is made of stone, that your ribs are made of concrete and that you have no heart,” said Lee. He called such comments “beneath the dignity” of the Senate.
Said Sessions: “There’s a lot of power behind this legislation. I can feel it. When I raise questions, push-back comes. ‘You’re unkind. You don’t like immigrants,’” he said, paraphrasing the criticism.
“That’s offensive to me.”
Supporters of the general approach taken by the legislation make it clear the criticism isn’t going to stop.
“House GOP gives the proverbial middle finger to the Latino community with vote” to deport youngerimmigrants, former Obama aide David Plouffe tweeted shortly after the House acted.