Senators defeat border security provision in immigration bill

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WASHINGTON — A sweeping immigration bill survived an early test today as two Republican authors of the legislation, Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, voting with Democrats. sided with Democrats to vote down an amendment that would have strengthened border security provisions. Supporters of the legislation said the real effect of the measure would have been to indefinitely delay citizenship for people living here illegally.

The amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, would have required control of the U.S.-Mexico border for six months before anyone could seek legal status.

Grassley said the measure was designed to ensure that the border really is secured.

But a lead supporter of the legislation, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, said the real impact would be to “delay, probably forever, any legalization” for immigrants now living in the country without authorization, who would eventually be eligible for citizenship under the bill.

The Judiciary Committee vote to defeat the amendment was 12 to 6, with Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voting with Democrats.

Flake, Graham, Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are among the four Republicans and four Democrats who authored the bill during months of closed-door negotiations. Attention is on them as the Judiciary Committee meets over the next two weeks, to see if they will hang together to defeat amendments from either side that could strike at the bill’s core provisions.

The vote on the Grassley amendment was likely the first of several in which the Republican authors sided with Democrats on the committee to vote down amendments from their own side. Schumer and Durbin also are expected to lend their votes to Republicans to defeat Democratic amendments that could improve the bill for immigrant families but make it less palatable for Republicans to support.

The 844-page legislation would toughen border security, remake legal immigration to allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, require all employers to check their workers’ legal status and create a 13-year path to citizenship for the millions already here.

In his opening remarks today, Grassley charged that the landmark bill backed by President Barack Obama does little more than repeat mistakes of the past.

“It falls short of what I want to see in a strong immigration reform bill, so you will hear me say many times that we shouldn’t make the same mistakes that we made in 1986,” the last time Congress passed a major immigration overhaul bill, Grassley said. “You’ll hear me say many times that we ought to move ahead with a bill that does it right this time.”

Schumer countered that the legislation represents the country’s best hope for immigration reform and a chance to break through the partisanship that’s riven Congress and the country.

“We have come up with a fair bill where no one gets everything they want, but at the end of the day, it will mean dramatic improvement for the American economy, the American people and will make our immigration policy much more in sync with what is good for jobs and America,” Schumer said.

Senators have filed some 300 amendments on a wide range of issues, some contentious, including workplace enforcement, high-tech visas and extending immigration law to cover gay people who are married. The focus Thursday was border security.

Although the bill allows citizenship to go forward only after certain border security goals have been met, those “triggers” haven’t proven convincing enough for many GOP lawmakers, and even one of the bill’s authors, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has said border measures need to be stronger.

The authors of the bill are working to show they are open to alterations that could attract additional support for the bill, and early on Thursday they accepted a half-dozen uncontroversial amendments from the Republican side to boost enforcement provisions, including an amendment by Grassley to require annual audits of a new immigration reform trust fund.

Rubio conceded in a broadcast interview Thursday that some amendments could be seen as attempts to thwart the legislation, but added he thought most were intended to refine and improve it, saying “that’s the way the process is supposed to work.”

He called the work of the Gang of Eight “an excellent starting point” and said there is overwhelming support among the American people, including social conservatives, for immigration changes as long as they tighten border security. Rubio said in an interview on “CBS This Morning” that the public wants legislation that would ensure that “this illegal immigration wave doesn’t happen again.”

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