Immigration reform hinges on Rubio proposals for border security

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the make-or-break player for immigration reform as the Senate on Tuesday begins voting to overhaul what is widely viewed as a broken system. [WATCH VIDEO]

Confidence among Democrats that the 1,000-page bill will pass the upper chamber was shaken last week when Rubio said he would not vote for it without changes to border security language — even though he negotiated the original draft.

Rubio and other Republicans say the bill will pass or fail depending on whether Democrats agree to amendments to strengthen border security and other enforcement provisions.

Senate sources say Rubio, a member of the Gang of Eight, is working on amendments to bolster border security apart from a border-security package drafted by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Pro-immigrant activists were alarmed when they heard that Rubio was meeting with Cornyn about border security but their concerns were quelled when Rubio signaled he would have his own package.

“It was very disturbing when he was flirting with Sen. Cornyn on that amendment,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America’s Voice, a liberal group that supports the Senate bill.

Democrats say Cornyn’s proposals are akin to a roadblock on the path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. They would require the Department of Homeland Security to achieve full situational awareness of the entire U.S.-Mexico border and complete operational control — defined as a 90-percent apprehension rate of illegal border crossers — of every border sector.

A Democratic aide called the package a collection of Republican amendments that the Judiciary Committee — including two Republican members of the Gang of Eight — rejected last month.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted at the end of May that it would be easy to round up 60 votes to pass immigration reform. The Senate will vote to proceed to the bill on Tuesday and Reid has set aside three weeks for debate.

Democrats are confident they will suffer only one, two or maybe three defections in their caucus but they are less certain about how much support will emerge from the Senate Republican conference.

“He may be right, I haven’t whipped the Republican side of the aisle,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), when asked about Rubio’s claim that the bill cannot pass without changes to border security language.

Supporters of the bill took it as a bad sign when the House voted last week to defund President Obama’s order to defer the deportation of illegal immigrants whose parents brought them to the country at a young age.

Republican senators were slow to embrace the Senate bill during a discussion of it in the Republican Steering Committee Wednesday.

“There’s widespread skepticism in the conference,” said a Republican senator who attended.

The principle concern of many Republican lawmakers is the bill will grant provisional legal status before securing the nation’s borders and that the Obama administration or a future administration will have too much discretion in determining whether border-security goals have been met.

Rubio has the key role of convincing Republicans that the 2013 immigration reform effort is not a repeat of the 1986 bill than many conservatives now view as an “amnesty” that failed to stop illegal immigration flows.

“They recruited him specifically to be Schumer’s front man because he’s got credibility with conservatives, he can present the issue in Spanish and has some recent immigrant family history. If he walks away from the bill, it disappears,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and an opponent of the Senate bill.

Krikorian said Rubio’s criticisms of the legislation are carefully scripted political theater. He predicts Democrats will accept a Rubio-sponsored proposal to make relatively modest changes to strengthen enforcement provisions and limit federal benefits for immigrants and that will he touted as a rationale for Republicans to vote yes on final passage.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has kept in daily contact with Rubio, has remained sanguine about the Florida senator's frequent statements calling for improvements to the Senate bill.

Senate aides say Schumer recognizes that Rubio has to keep his distance publicly to maintain credibility with the GOP’s conservative base. They say Rubio has voiced stronger support for the legislation in private meetings.

Rubio’s staff says he is working with Republican colleagues to craft proposals to strengthen the legislation but won’t say what he will offer on the floor. 

 “We are continuing to talk with other Senate offices, so it’s premature to discuss specific amendments that Sen. Rubio may be offering or supporting,” said Rubio’s spokesman, Alex Conant.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading critic of the bill, expects Rubio to advance some of the same policies his staff included in a memo circulated last month.

Those ideas include a plan to establish visa exit tracking at land ports of entry, not just air and sea ports, as the pending bill requires; and to build 700 miles of double-layered fencing along the southern border.

The Republicans outside the Gang of Eight most likely to support the legislation are Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah).

The other Republicans in play are Sens. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), James Risch (Idaho), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Thad Cochran (Miss.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.).

Liberal pro-immigrant advocacy groups will push amendments friendlier to immigrants living illegally in the country. The current bill does not grant a pathway to citizenship to illegal immigrants who came to the country after Dec. 31, 2011.

Groups want to move that cut-off date to the day the bill was introduced or the date it becomes law. They also want to reduce fines for immigrants who receive provisional legal status.