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Government, Politics & Issues

Debate on immigration revamp may focus on its impact on economy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 30, 2013: WASHINGTON – With the U.S. Senate moving toward a big vote in June and the House developing an alternative plan, the fate of immigration reform – a major goal of the White House – may hinge on the debate over its costs and benefits, as well as border security.

Bipartisan backers of the legislation, which was approved 13-5 last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee, contend that it is comprehensive, fair and would have a positive impact on the U.S. economy.

“In the end, this bill reforms a badly broken immigration system by strengthening border security, reforming our legal immigration system and creating a tough but fair path to citizenship,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the bipartisan “group of eight” senators who developed the legislation during months of negotiations.

But conservative opponents of the legislation, such as U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Al., say that the approach would “hammer working Americans” and – over the long run – worsen the fiscal pressure on already threatened entitlements, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

While the 1,000-page Senate bill – officially titled the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act" – has many provisions, its centerpiece would create opportunities for many of the estimated 11 million people living in his country without proper documents to get on a relatively slow path to citizenship or permanent legal residence.

At a forum Wednesday sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, think-tank experts on immigration policy displayed fundamental disagreements about the costs and benefits of revamping the system. Economist Robert G. Lynch of the liberal Center for American Progress predicted that the Senate bill would “boost the U.S. economy, boost productivity, and create more jobs” – with a net positive budget impact over the long term.

But Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation argued that granting paths to citizenship for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants in this county would lead to a “lifetime fiscal deficit” of at least $6.3 trillion over a half century, with most of those immigrants eventually getting far more in benefits than they pay in taxes.

Rector’s estimate was roundly criticized as inaccurate by Lynch and Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who now heads the center-right American Action Forum think-tank. They said the methodology did not take into account the economic benefits from taking millions of people out of the “shadow economy” and giving them free rein to better themselves.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key GOP sponsor of the Senate bill, dismissed the Heritage estimate last week as off base. “They are the only group that’s looked at this issue and reached the conclusion they’ve reached,” Rubio told reporters. “Everybody else who has analyzed immigration reform understands that if you do it, and we do it right, it will be a net positive for our economy.”

Senate approval likely, but House version will differ

Interpretations of the impact of the legislation on the economy – as well as on border security and the future flow of immigrants – will play a significant role in the Senate debate, which is likely to start the week of June 10.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told a TV station in Nevada this week that it will be “easy” to win the 60 votes needed to pass immigration reform in the Senate.  “Remember, we start out at 55 Democrats. I think the most I'll lose is two or three,” Reid said, saying he just needs to add four more GOP votes to the four already committed.

It helps that many Republicans from states with significant immigrant populations see political advantages to backing immigration reform. Last week, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – while not taking a definite position on the bill – said he would not try to block immigration reform from reaching the Senate floor.

McConnell told journalists that he is “hopeful” that an immigration bill will pass. “The status quo is not good, the current situation is not good,” he said.

It seems likely that at least three of the four senators representing Missouri and Illinois will end up backing the immigration legislation, depending on what amendments are added after the Senate debate.

Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat who has championed “Dream Act” legislation for a dozen years, is a strong backer of the bill. “Over the years, we have made serious efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but we have never been able to succeed,” Durbin said last week. “I believe this time is different.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called the committee-approved bill “a good compromise” but stopped short of declaring her support until she examined the details.

“I’m continuing to look at the bill to make sure it will penalize law-breakers and stress holding employers accountable for violating the law by knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants,” McCaskill said in a statement. But she added, “I believe the bill does work to address these priorities.”

Noting that influential GOP senators such as Rubio and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were strong backers of the legislation, McCaskill predicted that “we’re going to end up with a bipartisan bill that most senators are comfortable supporting.”

However, U.S Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has not taken a position on the bill so far, saying that he wants to make sure the border is secured.

“There are three different immigration problems: One is securing the border, two is what are the legitimate workforce needs of the country, and three is what do we do with people who either came here without documents or – as often as not – stayed without documents,” Blunt told the Beacon earlier this year.

“I think that Nos. 2 and 3 are fairly easy to solve if you ever convince people that you had a real handle on the first problem” – securing the border, Blunt added. 

One of the as yet uncommitted Senate Republicans who is thought to be likely to back the immigration bill is U.S. Sen, Mark Kirk, R-Ill. On Tuesday, he said in Chicago that the immigration bill “has a bright future” in the Senate.

While Kirk seems to be leaning toward supporting the Senate immigration bill, he wants to examine its border security provisions and he may offer an amendment to make sure that U.S. soldiers in combat become citizens.

“I will be offering an amendment that says if you are awarded a combat infantry badge that shows you have been under fire, you are automatically a U.S. citizen,” Kirk said. “Under the principal, if you fight with us, you are one of us.”

The Washington Post looks at immigration from a historical and geographic perspective.

There will also be efforts to tack on other amendments, some of them much more controversial. The senior GOP member of Senate Judiciary, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has said he plans to offer amendments to the bill that would attempt to limit the costs by requiring all such immigrants on a path to citizenship to pay all unpaid taxes and to make them ineligible for Affordable Care Act health subsidies for five years.

Rubio, a major sponsor of the bill who has been stung by criticism by conservatives, may back some of the GOP amendments. He said recently that he would like to strengthen the bill’s enforcement provisions as well as its approach to boosting security on the U.S. border with Mexico.

Asked about conservatives' mistrust of the Obama administration on border enforcement, Rubio told a Fox News forum that he would consider changes in the Senate bill that would shift more power to Congress in toughening the border security plan. "Unless we get people's confidence that we are going to secure the border, this bill won't pass," he said.

Health care at issue in House approach

In the House, a bipartisan eight-member group agreed last week to refine its version of legislation to revise U.S. immigration law and present it “as soon as possible.” 

The group tentatively resolved a dispute over what health benefits would be available to undocumented immigrants seeking citizenship, said U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a member of the bipartisan group. But he did not elaborate on details.

“While we applaud the progress made by our Senate colleagues, there are numerous ways in which the House will approach the issue differently,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement.

While the Senate bill would create a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the current version of the House bill would lengthen that to 15 years.

On health care, some GOP lawmakers oppose subsidizing benefits for undocumented immigrants, while Democrats worry about the impact of such a ban in emergency situations. Some Republicans also want to limit further  federal spending on illegals until they become citizens.

U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the second-ranking House Democrat, has said “there are legitimate issues to be discussed” about such an approach. But a Democrat on the bipartisan immigration group, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago, predicted to reporters that the House will approve some version of immigration legislation this year.

“We’re going to get there,” he said. “There’s going to be justice done to our immigrant community.”

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