By Russell Berman - 05/01/13 09:00 AM EDT
For immigration reform advocates, the first draft of a bipartisan Senate bill might be as good as it’s going to get.
While advocates of a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally have a lengthy wish list for changes to the 844-page bill, they say the real fight going forward will be to protect the policy victories that are already in the bill from a conservative onslaught in both chambers of Congress.
The defensive posture is a bow to the political fallout in the two weeks since the Senate’s Gang of Eight released its long-awaited proposal. After a quick endorsement from President Obama, attention turned to soothing the concerns of conservatives with pledges of a drawn-out process with plenty of room for amendments.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has mounted an aggressive outreach effort to the political right, seeking to enlist the public’s help in improving the legislation.
“I think this is a starting point that obviously we can and should improve,” Rubio said on a radio show Tuesday, repeating a message he has sent in numerous media appearances since the bill’s introduction.
The changes that Rubio’s conservative allies want — including tighter border security triggers and more restrictions on a path to citizenship — are opposed by liberal immigration advocates who say the hurdles for illegal immigrants in the Senate bill are already too onerous.
“We think they are excessive, but we think there will be efforts to push them further to the right,” said Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy at United We Dream.
The criticism on the right has largely drowned out the complaints of left-leaning advocates who want to reduce fines for illegal immigrants, expand family reunification policies and restore a diversity visa program repealed in the Senate bill, among other changes.
In discussions with reporters over the last several days, advocates have emphasized protecting the Senate from poison pill amendments far more than they have pushed their own changes.
They’re also playing defense in the House, where a secretive group of eight lawmakers is crafting a rival immigration bill.
The House legislation, which its authors hope to complete in May, is expected to have a longer path to citizenship and a larger guest-worker program than the Senate bill, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
At a Monday event in San Antonio, Texas, a Republican member of the House group, Rep. John Carter (Texas), suggested the Senate legislation did not sufficiently punish immigrants in the country illegally and could be construed as “amnesty.”
The House Judiciary Committee last week announced it would begin considering immigration reform through a piecemeal process, raising more concerns among advocates who say a comprehensive bill is the only way to achieve their goals.
“There’s room for both sides to improve the bill,” said Cesar Vargas, executive director of the DREAM Action Coalition. But he added, “That’s something that may not happen in the House.”
Obama on Tuesday said he would be “open-minded” about the House legislation as long as it met his criteria for reform, including enhanced border security, streamlined legal immigration and a path to citizenship. “If it doesn’t meet those criteria, then I will not support such a bill,” the president said.
Vargas has all but given up on the House process. He organized a letter from advocates of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) to the House leadership urging Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to simply take up and pass the Senate legislation.
“With legislation ready for mark-up in the coming weeks and up for a vote in early June, DREAMers are asking House leadership and the House ‘Gang of 8’ to not reinvent the wheel with its own bill,” the advocates wrote.
Democratic advocates looking to pull the Senate bill to the left are relying in large measure on Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voiced a number of concerns with the legislation as he opened hearings on the bill last week.
“I don’t think the Senate bill is the high water mark,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “I think it’s a good starting point. I know there’s going to be vigorous efforts by progressive forces to try to improve the bill and move it in a direction that advocates would find favorable.”
Praeli said it was “not enough for Democrats to vote yes. They have to want to champion things to make it better.”
At the same time, Sharry expressed concern about predictions from Gang of Eight members that their bill could win 70 votes. He fears Senate backers might sacrifice policy gains in an effort to run up the score.
“We’ll take 60,” Sharry told reporters on a conference call. “Sixty-five would be nice. If they think they can deliver 70, that’s great. But we want to make sure that the bill that emerges from the Senate is as balanced as the bipartisan bill that they produced, not one that slides to the right in a way that is worse policy and makes it more difficult to get the kind of enthusiasm and support it needs to get across the finish line.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) explained the push for a big margin in the Senate, saying at an event at the University of Southern California that it was needed to bring “significant pressure” on members of the House who might otherwise be reluctant to support it.