By Alexander Bolton - 02/02/13 06:00 PM EST
Under a bipartisan Senate framework, Democrats say, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano would have final say over whether the border is secure enough to put 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.
The early debate over immigration reform has yielded two thorny questions: What metrics will be used to determine whether the goals for border security and other safeguards against illegal immigration have been met? Who will decide whether the metrics have been achieved?
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the lead Democratic sponsor of the bipartisan immigration reform framework unveiled this past week, said Napolitano should decide.
“What we’ve proposed is that the DHS secretary, whomever it is, will have final say on [whether] whatever metrics we proposes are met,” Schumer said. “We think those metrics will be quite objective.”
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Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the lead Republican sponsor of the framework, said the issue is under discussion within the Gang of Eight.
“We’re working on a lot of it,” he said.
But the idea of letting Napolitano, who plans to stay in the cabinet for President Obama’s second term, or a future secretary of Homeland Security make the final call on the border has sparked alarm among other Republicans.
“My constituents are not going to accept a Washington bureaucrat making a representation the border is secure when they know it’s not true. So that’s unacceptable,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, who represents Texas.
There are other tough issues that could derail immigration reform negotiations. These include the establishment of an entry-exit visa system to track whether persons who enter the country leave when they are supposed to. An estimated 40 percent of illegal immigrants have overstayed their visas.
Another is the question of how to handle the future flow of workers for so-called low-skill jobs in meat processing, hospitality and other service industries. Some lawmakers say disagreements over a guest worker program blew up a comprehensive reform bill in the Senate in 2007.
The proposal to make border security a condition for allowing illegal immigrants onto a pathway to citizenship has emerged as the biggest disagreement in the early debate. Obama pointedly did not call for it during a speech in Las Vegas, Tuesday.
The Senate framework would create a commission made up of governors, attorneys general and community leaders from Southwestern border states to recommend when border security goals have been met.
They could not render the final judgment, however, because lawmakers fear that would violate the Constitution.
McCain says the commission nevertheless will have a significant influence.
“The Constitution requires that action taken by the Congress is not dictated by a commission. We will be guided to a large degree by their conclusions and recommendations,” he said.
The bipartisan Senate group envisions metrics for border security that can be objectively verified, such as target numbers for border patrol agents and unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.
“They will be objective so there’s not that much leeway,” Schumer said. “What we envision is that because they [are] objective, the advisory committee and DHS will in all likelihood agree.”
Members of the Gang of Eight would like to put in place a sequential process.
The commission of Southwestern officials would submit evaluations of border security that Napolitano or another DHS secretary would then approve. Democrats say Napolitano would not have unilateral power to put 11 million immigrants on a pathway to citizenship.
Advocates for a fast path to citizenship say Napolitano or someone else in the Obama administration would be a preferable choice to make the call.
“Having the DHS secretary decide rather than (Arizona Gov.) Jan Brewer decide is obviously a no-brainer,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice.
Sharry said “having clear metrics be the goalpost rather than the moving goalpost that Republicans have been engaged in the last five years is much better.”
“But any condition that leaves room for mischief is a potential problem,” he added.
Democrats and advocates for a relatively fast pathway to citizenship worry border security could become an excuse for delay.
Sharry and his allies say it should not be conditioned on further enforcement “when the border is already secure.”
He points to a dramatic increase to more than 21,000 border guards in the last several years and a large decrease in net levels of illegal immigration from Mexico, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, which supports reduced immigration levels, said even with the trigger endorsed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Gang of Eight, the Senate framework would grant immediate amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants.
“On Day One, illegal aliens step forward and get their probationary status and essentially get on the path. They start the path right there, Day One,” she said. “So the triggers are pretty much useless anyway.”
Jenks also argued the plank of the Senate framework requiring the completion of an entry-exit system to track whether visitors leave the country on schedule includes a big loophole. She said the entry-exit system would be ineffective because it would track only people entering and leaving the United States via airports and seaports.
“Do we really believe that agricultural workers are going to be flying into the country through airports or cruising in to seaports?” she said. “You just totally exempted them from the entry-exit system. You exempted everyone who comes across the Southern border and the Northern border.”