April 9, 2013

Senators apply brakes to fast-moving immigration talks

The bipartisan group of senators who last week proclaimed the imminent release of the most sweeping immigration overhaul in decades may have hit some political snags.

The bipartisan group of senators who last week proclaimed the imminent release of the most sweeping immigration overhaul in decades may have hit some political snags.

Senators and aides have backed off the confident pronouncements that the bill would be introduced this week. They now say they need additional time to iron out disagreements on several major issues, including a path to citizenship and how to handle future low- and high-skilled temporary workers.

“I can’t tell you when,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Tuesday. “I can tell you we’re getting close. I don’t know what date it is, but it’ll be soon if everything holds together. If everything holds the way it is today, we’re very close.”

With labor and business reaching a last-minute agreement on an immigrant temporary-worker program, the so-called “Gang of Eight” senators working on the overhaul returned to Washington this week under intense pressure to introduce their long-awaited immigration overhaul, which would place 11 million people here illegally on a path to citizenship.

Tens of thousands of people from California to North Carolina are expected to gather Wednesday on Capitol Hill to express their frustration that no legislation has yet been introduced.“You’re going to see how upset we are,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, an immigrant-advocacy group helping organize the rally. “Because they told us that it was first going to be in March. And then they said this week. And nothing is happening.”

On Wednesday, Republican members of the group are likely to brief others in their caucus on the details of their proposal, according to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

President Barack Obama will host a private dinner with Republican leaders later that evening to discuss immigration, gun control and other issues.

McCain, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., remained hopeful that legislation could be introduced this week. The bipartisan group had scheduled a marathon session of meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to work out remaining issues that would be part of what is expected to be a 1,500-page bill.

“We’re still writing the language,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “It’s dotting the ‘i’s’ and crossing the ‘t’s;’ it’s a big bill. I don’t think really it’s any issue, although some of the same ones you’ve heard about . . . those are tough.”

One sticking point involves the number of high-skilled immigrant visas that would be allowed. Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are pushing to increase the cap on high-skilled immigrant visas above 65,000 a year, while Democrats such as Durbin want the program, known as H-1B, changed to increase protections against fraud and to protect American workers.

Durbin, who has introduced bipartisan bills on the issue, argues the H-1B visa program is plagued with abuse and leads to foreign guest workers displacing qualified American workers.

The goal is not to undercut the American workforce, Graham said, but to ensure that businesses can get the workers they need.

“We’re just not producing enough engineers,” he said. “We’re having some of the smartest people in the world come to our universities and graduate with a technical degree, advanced degree, who can’t find a place here in America to work; that’s crazy. They’re going back to their countries to compete with us. We need to fix that.”

Graham emphasized that the revamped immigration system must give more weight to potential job skills and less weight to family connections than now exists.

“There will be a family component,” he said, “but no more chain migration.”

The other senators in the group are Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

Several Republican senators, including Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, warned colleagues not to rush in any new legislation and instead to allow “adequate time to read and analyze the contents” of any immigration overhaul.

“We believe it is critical that the public and the entire Senate body be given adequate time to read and analyze the contents of any immigration bill put forth by the majority,” the senators wrote.

But groups pressing for a comprehensive overhaul, such as America’s Voice and the National Council of La Raza, see such efforts as political gamesmanship, since most of the issues raised this week have been debated extensively during past efforts to pass a comprehensive overhaul.

“The need for constructive debate is one thing,” said Clarissa Martinez, the director of civic engagement and immigration at the National Council of La Raza. “The use of debate as a stalling tactic is another.”

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