WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate began the process Tuesday of tweaking the legislation that would overhaul the national’s immigration laws.
Senators approved two changes but rejected two others, including one that would require building hundreds of miles of additional border fencing, that would delay the new immigration process from going into effect.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., successfully added an amendment to help protect the citizenship of foreign children adopted by American families. Landrieu said she is “strongly leaning” toward supporting the immigration revamp in its current form.
An amendment by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., failed.
Vitter wants to stall implementation of the changes outlined in the immigration bill until a costly “biometrics,” entry-and-exit system is installed at every land, sea and airport entry point into the country. Vitter and other Republican critics contend that the nation must first focus on fixing border security problems before Congress should even consider “amnesty.”
The bipartisan U.S. Senate bill intends to crack down on Mexican border security, offer a path to citizenship after more than 10 years and expand guest worker programs in areas ranging from the sciences to agriculture. The federal government estimates 11 million people live in the country without legal permission.
The legislation is expected to face much stiffer opposition in the U.S. House, should it pass the U.S. Senate.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday he does not plan to schedule a floor vote on the immigration bill unless a majority of House Republicans back it. U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said he would not support the bill until more is done for border security.
The so-called Gang of Eight group of four Republicans and four Democrats proposed the legislation, arguing that a majority of both parties want to fix the nation’s “broken” immigration system. The measure includes $6.5 billion for border enforcement measures, but that money includes funding for new technology such as border drones, sensors, cameras and helicopters as well as fencing.
The 11 million people in the country without legal permission could apply for legal provisional status in the current bill before the border security measures are fully implemented.
“Technology is the real answer to border security,” said U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is part of the Gang of Eight.
The bill states that once the border security plans are finalized, many of those living in the U.S. illegally can obtain “registered provisional immigrant status,” provided they have lived in the country continuously since before 2012. They must pass criminal background checks and pay a $500 fine to receive the status. The status allows them to live and work legally in the country, but not receive federal benefits.
After 10 years in provisional status, immigrants can seek a green card and eventually apply for citizenship, if they are up-to-date on their income taxes and pay a $1,000 fine. They also must meet work requirements and learn English.
Proponents call it a tough but fair path to citizenship.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday the bill would reduce the federal deficit by nearly $200 billion over 10 years, with more people paying taxes under the provisional legal status. But opponents argue that is misleading because the true cost increases will come after a decade when more people become citizens and receive federal benefits and welfare.
An amendment by U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., failed on a 39 to 54 vote Tuesday that would have required the construction of another 350 miles of fencing before the initial legal provisional status could be obtained by anyone.
Vitter voted for it and Landrieu opposed the amendment. She also voted against Vitter’s “biometrics” amendment, which died on a 36-to-58 vote.
Vitter cited the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks while pushing his “biometrics” amendment as a means to catch people staying in the U.S. after their visas expire. “The 9/11 terrorists were visa overstay,” Vitter said.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called Vitter’s “biometrics” amendment a prohibitively costly and unrealistic “overreach” that would dramatically delay immigration reform even more.