Senate immigration gang frustrates GOP efforts to bolster border enforcement

The Senate Gang of Eight stayed unified through the third day of marking up immigration reform legislation, frustrating Republican attempts to strengthen the bill’s enforcement provisions.

Democrats touted the Senate Judiciary Committee’s passage of three Republican amendments to crack down on the future hiring of illegal immigrants, but senior Republicans on the panel were left disgruntled by the failure of stronger proposals.

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“The gang’s agreement to stick together is firmly in place. They’ve united in opposition to a lot of good amendments,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “Anything that comes close to being a significant vote, they voted ‘no’ on.

“I’m disappointed in that,” he added.

Republican members of the Gang of Eight, Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), joined with Democrats to defeat a proposal sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) requiring the government to implement an E-Verify program to combat the future hiring of illegal workers within 18 months after the bill’s enactment.

Republicans on the Gang of Eight and Democrats quashed a second Grassley amendment to delay the pre-emption of state and local laws related to employment eligibility verification until employers across the nation are required to use the E-Verify program. E-Verify is an Internet-based system that allows businesses to verify the legal status and work eligibility of prospective employees.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) joined Gang of Eight Republicans and Democrats on both votes, bolstering their hopes that he may vote for the broader bill.

The committee instead moved to soften E-Verify regulations to spare small businesses from added costs, adopting a proposal sponsored by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

The Franken amendment requires annual accuracy audits of E-Verify and reduces the cap on penalties for businesses failing to use or misusing the program if audits show error rates above 0.3 percent. It covers first-time violations.

Franken argued that having to verify the employment eligibility of workers mistakenly identified as illegal is a burden on businesses.

Franken’s proposal passed on a voice vote despite opposition from Grassley and Flake.

Flake noted the legislation already includes a four-year phase-in period for small businesses.

“I think that there are protections in the legislation,” he said. “I know we come under a lot of criticism for not going after employers and making sure employers are fined when they run afoul of the law.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill and a member of the Gang of Eight, persuaded Franken to hold off on another amendment that would have exempted businesses with 14 or fewer employees from E-Verify until low error rates had been achieved.

Schumer called that proposal a deal breaker.

Pro-immigrant advocacy groups said they were pleased with the bill’s progress after the first three days of markup.

“Overall there’s been a very concerted effort that has resulted in protecting the basic architecture of the agreement, which is very welcome to organizations like mine,” said Clarissa Martínez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at National Council of La Raza.

Schumer touted the panel’s adoption of three Grassley-sponsored amendments that he said would strengthen enforcement.

One amendment requires U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to provide weekly reports about people who fail E-Verify checks; a second amendment requires a parent or guardian to attest to the identification of minors for employment verification; a third allows parents to lock the Social Security numbers of children to safeguard against identity theft.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has taken the lead in selling the bill to conservative voters, praised the changes.

Rubio’s office said the revised bill empowers parents to protect children from becoming the victims of fraud within the E-Verify system and noted the original bill allowed anyone over the age of 21 to attest to the identity of a minor for purposes of employment.

Pro-immigrant groups, however, raised concerns about the Grassley amendment requiring Citizenship and Immigration Services to issue reports on people who failed E-Verify.

“The problem is, as we know, there are a lot of ways to use and misuse those kinds of tools, and one of the things we’re concerned about is having certain employers willing to use a tool like that to intimidate workers speaking up about bad working conditions,” said Martínez De Castro.

“What are going to be the measures to protect workers when unscrupulous employers try to use it for a different purpose?” she said.

Critics of the bill said the amendments did not go far enough to prevent future waves of illegal immigration.

"After two weeks of considering amendments to the Gang of Eight immigration bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee has generally failed to strengthen the loophole-filled enforcement provisions or to reduce the harm of radically expanded immigration numbers on unemployed and underemployed Americans," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which opposes granting millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

The committee postponed action on a package of amendments sponsored by Hatch to ease regulations on companies hiring foreign workers under the H-1B visa program. Schumer requested a delay for more time to negotiate a deal, prompting an exasperated response from Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

“At some point, we have to vote on these things,” Leahy said.

Hatch told reporters Thursday afternoon that a compromise on visas for high-skilled workers is necessary to secure his support for the bill.

“We've got to iron out the H-1B situation so it doesn't push businesses to hire people overseas, which is what the current language will do, and everyone who looks at it knows that,” Hatch told reporters Thursday afternoon.

“I think if we don't solve their problem, it will sink the bill,” he said.

The Judiciary panel will resume its markup on Monday morning. Leahy plans to report the bill out of committee by the end of next week.

Jennifer Martinez contributed to this report.