Only a few short weeks ago, the so-called Senate Gang of Eight – four Republicans and four Democrats committed to producing a bipartisan immigration reform bill – released a bill exceeding 800 pages representing work dating back to November. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened for the first day of mark-up – a process whereby all committee members have the chance to offer amendments to the bill before it proceeds to consideration by the full Senate.
This reform package is so important that the Committee has taken the very rare step of scheduling mark-up sessions to last for three full weeks. That will be necessary to deal with the 300 amendments offered by Senators on the Committee.
On the first day, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) called for all amendments impacting Title I of the bill, which focuses on border security issues. In recent years, the Southwest border has been the focus of intense federal law enforcement build-up. Staffing by Department of Homeland Security personnel has skyrocketed, and the Obama administration deported more individuals during its first term than in any other single presidential term – on the order of 400,000 individuals per year. But the heavy militarization of our border hasn’t been enough and some on the right have insisted on further build-up as a price to pay for a fair road to citizenship for those aspiring Americans who have been living and working in this country for years.
Thursday was the day for all manner of attempts to make the border security provisions of the bill even more onerous than they already are. Never mind that conservatives and liberals alike agree that additional enforcement measures would be not merely wasteful, but abusive. Even the Wall Street Journal took issue with the folly of throwing more money at the already over-policed border. In truth, some of those attempts were really designed to gut the bill and stop it in its tracks. Fortunately, those provisions largely failed.
The ACLU recommended votes for or against 23 different amendments. We supported amendments that would curtail heightened law enforcement surveillance authority without judicial oversight extending fully 100 miles from the border, require humane conditions of confinement for children in the custody of the Border Patrol, and improve due process by providing additional resources to an overtaxed judicial system. We opposed other amendments that would further the militarization of the border, make it harder for the citizenship program to take effect, or water down requirements to provide training to avoid use of excessive force.
At the end of Day One, the bill was altered, but not fundamentally so. Highlights and lowlights? Proponents of efficient and fair law enforcement were disappointed at the adoption of Senator Grassley’s (R-Iowa) amendment extending border security mandates to the entire Southwest border region and not limiting them to high-risk areas. On the other hand, opponents of discriminatory practices were heartened at the adoption of an amendment offered by Senator Blumenthal that would bar federal funding of prosecutions arising out of unlawful law enforcement conduct, such as profiling.
The mark-up of this massive bill resumes Tuesday morning. Next up? Title IV of the bill, which deals with reforms to non-immigrant visa programs.