TOPICS > Politics

Lawmakers Begin Contemplating Action for 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants

February 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In Sen. Marco Rubio's State of the Union response he called for a solution to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Is a bipartisan immigration reform plan the answer? Margaret Warner discusses the question with Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Manu Raju, senior reporter at Politico.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we return to politics now, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill begin to discuss ways to address the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

Margaret Warner has our look.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt.: The police will restore order.

MARGARET WARNER: It was the Senate’s opening hearing on the new push for immigration reform, and the emotions around the issue surfaced early, as protesters briefly interrupted the proceedings.

PATRICK LEAHY: Secretary Napolitano, please continue.

MARGARET WARNER: But, quickly, the secretary of homeland security, former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, told the Judiciary Committee that now is the time to act.

SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. Homeland Security: I can say without equivocation what everyone who deals with this issue knows well: Our immigration system is not just broken; it is hurting our country. The time to fix it is long overdue. And the way to fix it is with commonsense, comprehensive immigration reform.

MARGARET WARNER: The hearing came two weeks after President Obama laid out his own goals for immigration reform. They include stronger border security, a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million illegal immigrants already here, and expedited visas for highly skilled workers from abroad.

He returned to the issue in last night’s State of the Union address.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, faith communities, they all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Now’s the time to do it.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Now’s the time to get it done.

MARGARET WARNER: The issue has gained momentum since the election, when the president won 70 percent of Latino votes. And a bipartisan group of eight senators also has unveiled a framework for reform.

Today, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, including Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said opponents need to think twice.

PATRICK LEAHY: There are some stuck in the past who are repeating the demands of enforcement first. I fear that they mean enforcement only. To them, I say this has stalled immigration reform for far too long.

MARGARET WARNER: But Republicans insisted again that securing the border must come first. Even Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the bipartisan group of eight, said this in the Republican response to the president last night.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But, first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.

MARGARET WARNER: That history was never far away at today’s hearing for many Republicans, including Texas Senator John Cornyn.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas: This is like deja vu for a lot of us. But I believe that the reason that immigration reform failed in 2007 is because the American people don’t actually believe that Congress intends to follow through on important measures like border security, work site enforcement, visa overstays, and the like.

MARGARET WARNER: Napolitano told Cornyn that the Obama administration has done much to stem illegal border crossings. And she argued that providing a legal pathway to citizenship and cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers will do more.

JANET NAPOLITANO: We know the main driver of illegal immigration across the Texas border, Arizona, California, whatever, is the ability to work. But we don’t have the tools to support the border with effective worker requirements and prosecution tools against employers. So when you think about immigration reform, that’s why all these things go together. It is a system.

MARGARET WARNER: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, another member of the group of eight, said he sees a different obstacle to comprehensive reform, one that was thrown up last time by Democrats.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: Here’s the friction point. Temporary workers are needed in the future, a legal source of labor for American employers. Do you agree with that?

JANET NAPOLITANO: Yes, that concept is one I can agree with.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, and the goal is not to displace an American worker. You can only get a temporary worker when there’s no American available at a competitive wage.

JANET NAPOLITANO: The devil is in the details. You have got to have appropriate protections for American workers and indeed for workers who are coming in to work.

MARGARET WARNER: The committee also heard from a witness who tried to remind the senators of the human dimension of this debate, Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist brought here as a child, who revealed in 2011 that he is an undocumented immigrant.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS, Journalist/Immigration Rights Activist: Immigration is about our future. Immigration is about all of us. And before we take your questions here, I have a few of my own. What do you want to do with me? For all the undocumented immigrants who are actually sitting here at this hearing, for the people watching online and for the 11 million of us, what do you want to do with us?  

MARGARET WARNER: Committee Chairman Leahy has pledged to send a bill to the full Senate. And in the coming weeks, a House proposal is expected to be unveiled as well.

So, could immigration reform be the rare big-ticket item that passes Congress with bipartisan support?

We explore the question with Norman Ornstein, a longtime Congress watcher and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Manu Raju, a senior reporter with Politico who has been closely covering the issue.

And, Manu, let me begin with you.

Congress in the last couple of years has certainly been so partisan and so dysfunctional. Is there real reason to think that immigration reform this time could be different?

MANU RAJU, Politico: I think there is.

The issues that have divided this Congress within the last two years have been mainly over the fiscal matters. There’s a sharp partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats over the issues of taxes and spending.

On immigration, it really cuts across party lines. There are a lot of senators from border states, influential ones, who want a deal, people like John McCain, Marco Rubio, who are seriously invested in the process of putting together a comprehensive bill. They see the politics have changed on this issue. They’re trying to convince their party that now is the time to get behind a comprehensive bill that includes border security measures, that includes enforcement mechanisms, and includes a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants that Democrats are pushing.

There is a chance to get it done, but it’s not going to be easy. The Senate will be tough, and the House is going to be even harder.

MARGARET WARNER: Norm, do you see it this way, that there is a prospect here, and that you have got a change of mind, at least among some Republicans?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Yes, there’s no doubt.

Six months ago, we would have said no way will we do anything on this issue seriously. The election changed all of that, and it’s changed the dynamics. But Manu is right that we have a couple of big obstacles here. The first is one that Janet Napolitano basically highlighted. The devil is in the details.

A framework is easy, in the Senate at least. When you start to get down to how you are going to deal with temporary workers, what kinds of limitations you will put on employers, and what you will do with those undocumented 11 million, what kind of path to citizenship, what about somebody who’s been here from 30 years — for 30 years, compared to somebody who’s been here for three, that’s not going to be knocked together in a week.

And the time is relatively short, when you have got this consensus building. And the second problem is the House, where you don’t have those border members who are eager to come up with a bill. You have got 100 to 150 House Republicans. When they go back home, they’re not hearing, do something to improve the lot of the Republican Party and its standing with Hispanics. They’re hearing, amnesty is a four-letter word, and you try and do anything and we’re going to erupt.

MARGARET WARNER: Manu, how — the big divide, a big divide at today’s hearing seemed to be, it’s an old, old argument between the Republicans who say you have got to have tougher, stricter enforcement first, and Democrats and Secretary Napolitano, who said, we also have to provide this clear path to citizenship.

All right. So does the bipartisan group that came up with a bill, have they found a solution or a resolution to that tension?

MANU RAJU: Only broadly.

What they’re talking about is creating a system that would lead to secure border mechanisms that would ensure and certify that new border security enforcement measures take effect before the 11 million undocumented immigrants can start to apply for permanent residency, can get green cards, can move on that path to citizenship.

But how do you actually certify that the border is secure? How is that done? That is a very tricky, tricky situation, tricky scenario that they’re working through. They’re not at an agreement yet. And that’s why these negotiations are happening at a pretty fast pace behind closed doors.

They hope to get something together by March to present, but they’re not at that conclusion. They don’t have a resolution yet on that issue.

MARGARET WARNER: Norm, we have focused a lot on Republicans here, if you want to add something on the rift, the fault line among Republicans, but are there also fault lines among Democrats here?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Oh, yes, of course there are.

And you certainly have some Democrats who are uneasy about doing this. They’re hearing the same problems from constituents back home, although public opinion overall has changed. But you have, I think, a real concern among Democrats. They want a path to citizenship for the undocumented workers.

An awful lot of Republicans want a path to legalization. There’s a real difference between legalization and citizenship. And, of course, one difference is the right to vote. But you are going to see some fault lines develop there. And for Democrats, if they don’t get that, and if they view the border problems as being too great, the sanctions as being too strong, you will get some resistance there as well.

This is not a done deal among Democrats, although they don’t have the same kinds of rifts that you see among Republicans. And let’s face it. One other issue here, Margaret, is you’re going to have some Democrats who’d rather have the issue and have Hispanic and Asian Americans still angry with the Republican Party than have this part of the dilemma. It’s not just about immigration when it comes to these voters put behind them.

MARGARET WARNER: Very quick response from each of you finally on this.

If, let’s say, the Senate manages to pass something, how do you see the House, particularly among the Republicans, Manu and then Norm?

MANU RAJU: Well, it depends on how big of a majority it passes out of the Senate.

If this is approved by a big bipartisan majority, it’s going to be very hard for the House Republican leadership to simply ignore this or break it apart and pass something on a piecemeal basis. But if this is done on a very party-line, partisan basis, if they lose that fragile coalition that they have right now in the Senate, it’s going to be much easier for the House Republicans to go their own way and probably in the end much harder to reach consensus.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, that the House Republicans are going to hang back and wait until they see what the Senate does?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, there’s no doubt they’re going to hang back and wait.

But I think the bottom line here is that, if you get a bill through that we can enact into law, it is going to require more Democrats than Republicans. And the dilemma for John Boehner is bringing up yet another bill that violates the so-called Hastert rule, where he has to rely more on the Democrats.

MARGARET WARNER: Where he has to go for a bill that he doesn’t have the majority of his majority.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And that’s not easy.

MARGARET WARNER: Norm Ornstein, Manu Raju, thank you so much.

And you can watch selected excerpts of today’s testimony, including more from Jose Antonio Vargas, on the Rundown.