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.

ADVERTISEMENT
“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 SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Guidance on masks is coming The Hill's Campaign Report: Coronavirus forces Democrats to postpone convention Roy Moore to advise Louisiana pastor arrested for allegedly defying ban on large gatherings MORE (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 FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeMcSally campaign to suspend TV ads, canvassing amid pandemic Coronavirus isn't the only reason Congress should spend less time in DC Trump Jr. says he inherited 'Tourette's of the thumbs' from his father MORE (Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump attacks WHO amid criticism of his coronavirus response Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill UN biodiversity chief calls for international ban of 'wet markets' MORE (S.C.), joined with Democrats to defeat a proposal sponsored by Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Democrats target Ernst in bid to expand Senate map Zoom, grocery delivery, self-isolation: How lawmakers are surviving coronavirus MORE (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 HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line Bottom line Trump administration backs Oracle in Supreme Court battle against Google MORE (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 FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenAl Franken blasts Susan Collins: She'll let Trump 'get away with anything' Bill Press: Don't forget about Amy Key moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far MORE (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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHouse Republicans, key administration officials push for additional funding for coronavirus small business loans Rep. Massie threatens to block next relief bill, calls for remote voting Democratic senators call for funding for local media in coronavirus stimulus MORE (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 RubioMarco Antonio RubioMnuchin, Schumer in talks to strike short-term relief deal Senators push for changes to small business aid Phase-four virus relief hits a wall MORE (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 LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDemocratic senators call for funding for local media in coronavirus stimulus Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court MORE (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.