It was a big week for the Gang of Eight's comprehensive immigration-reform package, which was on the verge of passing the U.S. Senate as The Skinny went to press this week.
After being amended with a plan to push a "border surge" that would add nearly 20,000 more Border Patrol agents—essentially doubling the current force—and build another 700 miles of fencing, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 managed to win 67 Senate votes on Monday, June 24, for a procedural motion that brings it closer to final passage.
The changes in the bill, via an amendment sponsored by Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota and Democrat Bob Corker of Tennessee, came after senators rejected a different amendment sponsored by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who wanted to set virtually unreachable metrics for border security before undocumented immigrants now in the country could get on a path to citizenship.
Instead, senators decided to just start throwing (even more) money at the southern border—an approach that Sen. John McCain conceded was a bit over the top during an appearance on Fox News.
"Is it more than I would have recommended? Honestly, yes," said McCain, who was one of the original Gang of Eight drafters of the bill. "But we've got to give people confidence. And by the way, if there's anyone who still will argue that the border's not secure after this, then border security is not their reason for opposing a path to citizenship for the people who are in this country illegally."
As if on cue, McCain's old pal, Sarah Palin, announced via Facebook that she remained opposed to the legislation on Sunday, June 23, calling it a "pandering, rewarding-the-rule-breakers, still-no-border-security, special-interests-ridden, 24-lb disaster of a bill."
Palin—who is essentially functioning as the id of the GOP conservatives—added that the bill "offers no solutions. It will barely slow the flow of illegal immigration, which means we can expect millions and millions of new illegal aliens in coming years."
But the promise of the big surge was enough to flip Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer from a skeptic of the bill to a supporter.
Brewer told Fox News on Monday, June 24, that she was "claiming victory for Arizona in regards to the border surge. I was writing to the federal government and to Sen. Schumer way back in June of 2010 in regards to the border surge that we needed to see completed before we moved forward."
Plenty of the critics of the legislation remain. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted against ending debate on the immigration bill earlier this week, said he didn't believe the bill would lead to a secure border.
"Despite the hard work and best efforts of our colleagues, I remain concerned that when it comes to the threshold question of border security, today's assurances may well become tomorrow's disappointments," the Kentucky Republican said in a statement to the press. "And that's to say nothing of the process that got us here. When I called for a debate on immigration earlier this month, a massive bill, pushed up against an artificial deadline, without any real opportunity for review or amendment isn't what I had in mind."
Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy said he would vote for the amended bill, but called it "a disappointment to me and to many" because it had become "a potential recipe for waste, fraud and abuse."
"The modification to my amendment reads like a Christmas wish list for Halliburton," Leahy said in a press release. "I am sure there are federal contracting firms high-fiving at the prospect of all of the spending demanded by Senate Republicans in this amendment. The litany of expensive services, technology, and hardware mandated by this package is combined with an inexplicable waiver of many normal contracting rules."
Leahy is not the only one to see the expanded border buildup as ridiculous overkill and a colossal waste of money. Some wonder how the Border Patrol will be able to train and supply an extra 18,000 agents—not to mention questioning what all those agents are going to be doing out in the desert. Others say it will make the border region look like a war zone.
Locally, Border Action Network Executive Director Juanita Molina called the legislation "a disproportionate response to the risk posed by economic migrants."
"Not only does this affect our everyday freedoms, it creates an occupied state that undermines the public trust in law enforcement and governmental institutions," Molina said in a prepared statement.
But Sen. Jeff Flake, who was one of the original Gang of Eight sponsors, celebrated the border surge.
"In addition to doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and doubling the miles of border protected by fencing, the Hoeven-Corker amendment adds a firm trigger by requiring strong enforcement elements to be completed before anyone adjusts from provisional to permanent status," Flake said via press release. "I'm proud to support this amendment, and urge its passage."
But there's something that Flake didn't mention in his statement—and that's a major change in how the trigger to allow undocumented workers to get on that path to citizenship works.
Under the original Gang of Eight bill, the trigger worked like this: The federal government had to show that 90 percent of the undocumented border crossers known to authorities had to be turned back or captured. But the Hoeven-Corker amendment scraps that measurement in favor of allowing undocumented workers to get green cards—and get on the path to citizenship—once the fencing is built and the Border Patrol agents are hired. And conservatives remain concerned that there are too many loopholes in the amendment that even those goals won't need to be met before undocumented immigrants start getting their green cards.
SCORING THE BORDER BILL
In other news on the immigration-reform front: Before the aforementioned Hoeven-Corker amendment was unveiled, the Congressional Budget Office released a financial analysis of the Gang of Eight's bill, projecting that passage of comprehensive immigration reform would result in a reduction of the deficit by nearly $200 billion over the next decade.
Overall, the report was so sunny that even House Speaker John Boehner conceded that "if in fact those numbers are anywhere close to being accurate, it would be a real boon for the country," according to a Talking Points Memo report.
Boehner has been reluctant to take much of a stand on the immigration bill, but he showed a few of his cards last week when he told the press he wouldn't bring an immigration bill to the floor unless it had the support of a majority of his caucus. Since a majority of House Republicans are likely to reject the path to citizenship laid out in the Gang of Eight's legislation, that means a very different bill is likely to emerge in the House.
At that point, the game will focus on what happens in the conference committee—and that's where conservatives are worried that Boehner will sell them out by appointing Republicans who will use the Senate bill as the template for the compromise legislation.