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Senate panel debates standard for secure border

Heart of immigration bill remains largely intact

WASHINGTON – After eight hours of debate, the bipartisan Senate immigration bill emerged mostly intact Thursday, despite Republican-led efforts to make substantial alterations in the first of what is certain to be many long committee meetings to work through the 844-page proposal.

Senators on the Judiciary Committee spent most of the day on a question that has baffled immigration reformers: how to determine when the border with Mexico would be declared secure. The answer is crucial, because only then would the legalization process start for the estimated 11 million people in this country illegally.

Under the bill, the border was to be considered secure after the Department of Homeland Security had a plan that could halt 90 percent of the illegal crossings at three hot spots.

Republicans argued that without an even tougher standard, there would be no guarantee that authorities could prevent another wave of illegal immigration. Democrats countered that many of the Republican proposals were too costly or set unrealistic goals, making it unlikely the legalization process could ever begin.

The committee, which is controlled by Democrats, unanimously agreed to a modest but significant change: requiring a plan to stop 90 percent of illegal crossings along the entire southern border.

By day’s end, senators had dispatched 32 of 300 proposed amendments.

The bill, which grew by a few dozen pages with the first amendment, is complex in both politics and policy.

It would require the federal government to gain almost total control of the border, authorizing money for drones, Customs and Border Protection officers and prosecution of illegal entries. New guest worker programs would be established, particularly for low-skilled workers, and employers would be required to verify the legal status of all employees.

In exchange, people now in the country without legal status would be eligible for provisional status if they paid fees, fines and taxes. They could gain legal residency 10 years after the border was declared secure. After 13 years, they would be eligible for citizenship.

The eight senators in the bipartisan group that drafted the bill – four of whom are on the 18-member Judiciary Committee – have pledged to fend off changes that would derail the bill. They did so Thursday.

Several of the GOP-backed border control amendments were rejected with the help of two Republicans who worked on the bill, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, proposed an amendment that would have made immigrants wait for six months after the border was secure to apply for provisional legal status. Flake argued against it.

“They’re in the shadows, and we’ve got to bring them out,” Flake said. “We’ve got to know who’s here.”

The two senators similarly rejected an amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would have tripled the number of Border Patrol officers and quadrupled the amount spent on drones and other surveillance technology on the border.

Flake argued that the $30 billion to $40 billion in added costs would be untenable.