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Sen. Durbin: Despite Strong Feelings, Gang of Eight Found Balance on Immigration

April 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A bipartisan team of senators rolled out its sweeping plan for immigration reform, meant to create a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Margaret Warner talks to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the lawmakers who collaborated on the plan.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: a big move on a long-controversial area, immigration.

Margaret Warner has our look.

MARGARET WARNER: After months of negotiations, a bipartisan group of senators formally rolled out a sweeping immigration overhaul today. The gang of eight’s bill would establish a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people currently in the country. The process would take 13 years, and applicants would have to pay a fine and back taxes, learn English, and pass a criminal background check, among other hurdles.

But before that system can even be set up, certain security goals must be met, including improvements to the border fence.

One member of the group, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said failing to change the nation’s immigration system would be economic suicide.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: The only way America loses is to do nothing. And to those people who believe that we don’t need legal immigration in the future, you’re not — you’re in denial about the demographics. And to those who say this costs more to take people out of the shadows and put them in a legal status where they pay taxes, you have certainly lost me. That makes no sense.

MARGARET WARNER: For more now on the push to pass comprehensive immigration reform, we turn to Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. He’s the majority whip in the Senate and a member of the so-called gang of eight.

Welcome, Sen. Durbin.

You all have been working on this nonstop since the start of this Congress. How hard was it to forge this compromise?

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.: This wasn’t easy.

You know, you have eight willful members of the U.S. Senate, four from each party, each with a point of view. And we came together determined to put together a comprehensive immigration bill, a task which has eluded other senators in the recent past.

We got it done. It’s an 848-page bill. I think it’s a good offering, a way to improve this immigration system in a lot of different facets.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, give us a flavor of what was it was like in that room. I gather you had something like 24 meetings.

RICHARD DURBIN: Well, there were nice, kind and quiet meetings and more eruptive meetings.

As I said today to John, I said, Mount McCain erupted a few times, but fortunately no one was injured and we got back on path in a hurry.

So despite the strong feelings that we each brought to this issue, because it is so important to each of us and to our country, I think at the end we struck a good balance.

MARGARET WARNER: As you referenced, back in 2007, there was also a bipartisan push for immigration reform. Just this week, we saw proposals on gun legislation which had bipartisan backing and wide public support go down to defeat.

What gives you reason to believe or hope that this one may be different?

RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I have never been on a stage at a press conference announcing a bill which Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, and Grover Norquist.

It’s the most unusual coalition of business and labor, conservatives and liberals, religious leaders, leaders from all walks of life who have come together to back this bill. I think we have got a chance because it is so bipartisan and has such a broad base of support.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think it’s more than the fact that 70 percent of Hispanic voters chose President Obama in the fall elections?

RICHARD DURBIN: Make no mistake, that was the catalyst. If the Nov. 6th election hadn’t been so decisive when it came to voting blocs like Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans favoring President Obama, I’m not sure my Republican colleagues would have had the appetite.

John McCain has been very open about this. And he said if the Republicans want to be competitive with Hispanic voters in America, we have got to step forward and find a solution to our immigration challenge.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, have the eight of you discussed not only the substance of the bill, but how each team of you is going to deal with challenges from your own caucus?

RICHARD DURBIN: Well, we haven’t gotten into particulars.

We can certainly do that. And, obviously, my work as Senate whip, I do it every day, where we break out members of each caucus and each approach them trying to make sure that they understand the bill. But, in fairness, the Republican senator took this measure to their own caucus. We took it to ours and went through it in detail, opened it to questions.

On the Democratic side, as you might expect, there was a more positive response. But I still feel very hopeful that we will have a substantial number of Republican senators.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you — several of you at today’s press conference talked about how you would welcome amendments, but not amendments you felt were designed to kill the bill.

How is that actually going to work? In other words, are you committed to working together as a group, to actually meeting and saying, this looks like a bill-killer to us, and always voting as a bloc?

RICHARD DURBIN: Well, we haven’t spelled that out because we haven’t seen the amendments. Once we see them, we will be able to measure them as to whether they’re friendly amendments to improve the bill or designed otherwise.

Now, there are four of us, Chuck Schumer, myself, Lindsey Graham, and Jeff Flake, on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where this bill is going to be considered. We will have our hearing tomorrow, the first hearing, and then another one on Monday. Come after the May recess, we will be coming back here in the first week of May with an opportunity to go through markup.

MARGARET WARNER: But you have worked now with these seven other senators very closely for the last, what, three, four months. Do you think each one is committed and ready to vote against amendments offered by members on the maybe more ideological end of their caucus, the people they consider friends and colleagues and who represent constituencies that a member of the gang of eight also has to worry about?

RICHARD DURBIN: You put your finger on the biggest challenge.

When you have a brokered compromise that really tries to strike a balance, and then you open it to amendments, I know they’re going to be some heartbreaking votes there. There will be things which, if I were an independent on this issue and not vested in this process, I would gladly vote for them. I’m sure the same is true on the Republican side.

But we have got to measure which amendments go too far, destroy the balance. It’s going to be a tough balancing act.

MARGARET WARNER: One element — there’s been a lot of focusing on what the bill does for and to people who have been here illegally, but it also represents quite a shift, wouldn’t it, in who’s admitted here legally in the future?

RICHARD DURBIN: Yes, there are several aspects to this.

First, we’re talking about people who come in for specific jobs or specific purposes, the H-1Bs and so-called specialized people who are brought into the United States. We think of them in the high-tech industry, but it really is across a broad spectrum of possibilities in employment.

Then we have other jobs related to seasonal workers, agricultural workers and the like. So each of those has a different program, but there’s one common theme: In every one of these instances, the job has to be offered to an American first, and it has to be offered at a wage that’s fair. And if the American fills the job, so be it. Or if the unemployment rate in this country is too high, you can’t bring in the foreign workers.

So we’re really trying to set up a system that gives the American workers the first opportunity, the highest preference.

MARGARET WARNER: Quick final question. President Obama came out this week and said he supports this bill. Do you want his active involvement in this? Do you need his active involvement? Or is it better to have him stand back and let you all handle this?

RICHARD DURBIN: It was interesting. A few months back, when the president was headed to Nevada to talk about immigration, the Sunday before he left, he was on the phone with Chuck Schumer and me, and we talked for a few minutes.

And he basically said, all right, I won’t put a bill out on the table. I will give you this chance to move forward. But I have learned a lesson watching Congress. I’m not going to wait forever. So get onto it and get it done.

And we have. The president has been encouraging us. He supports comprehensive immigration reform. I know he will do whatever it takes to help us pass this bill, but he’s committed to it personally.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, thank you so much.

RICHARD DURBIN: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: In the fourth in our five-part online series, we catch up with Jesus Garcia, an activist we first interviewed about immigration reform in 2006. What has and hasn’t changed in the last seven years? You can also read a primer on the legislation.