The barrier that divides the U.S. House and Senate plans for immigration reform looms as large as the double-layered border fence that lines much of the Texas-Mexico border.
On Tuesday, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee passed the Strength and Fortify Enforcement, or SAFE, Act, an omnibus bill that would, among other things, expand the immigration-enforcement powers of local law enforcement and require that federal authorities detain those who state or local officers deem inadmissible or deportable. Opponents of the House measure — filed by U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. and co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, and Ted Poe, R-Humble — say it directly opposes an immigration reform package by the bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight.
The House measure is unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate in its current form, but the differences between the two bills illustrate the contentiousness of the battle to send an immigration reform package to the White House.
The Senate plan would create a 13-year path to citizenship for people in the country illegally and require that undocumented immigrants register and pay back taxes and fines. On Tuesday, the White House touted findings from the Congressional Budget Office that indicated the Senate’s bill would reduce the deficit over the next 10 years by $197 billion, and by almost $700 billion through 2033. Though the measure has also been criticized by immigrants' rights groups for its “border security” triggers — metrics that must be met before the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country can achieve legal status — the bill is seen as the best chance for comprehensive reform this year. The Senate began markups on the measure this month and lawmakers expect a vote on the floor before the July 4 recess.
During Tuesday’s hearing on the House's SAFE Act, Gowdy said that expanding immigration powers to local enforcement falls in line with the powers officers already have. He fought back against critics who claimed federal immigration laws pre-empt those passed at the local and state levels.
“We trust state and local law enforcement officers to enforce murder laws, drug laws, bribery laws, every other category of crimes,” he said. He added that attacks on national security could be prevented if local officers' powers were expanded, citing the terror attacks in 2001.
“[The 9/11 hijackers] had all violated federal immigration laws and could have been detained,” he said.
Hinojosa, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that the pleas of business leaders, elected officials, faith groups and others have fallen on the deaf ears of Republicans.
“The item we continue to hear from all these groups is we must work together to develop a sensible, comprehensive immigration reform bill,” he said. “Poll after poll shows the desire to get this done.”
One of those polls was the topic of discussion among members of the conservative Texas Immigration Solution group, which met last week at the state Capitol.
The poll, commissioned by the Alliance for Citizenship, Partnership for a New American Economy and Republicans for Immigration Reform and conducted by Public Policy Polling, showed that 41 percent of respondents in Texas “strongly support” the Gang of Eight’s bill. The measure was described as a bill that “would secure our borders, block employers from hiring undocumented immigrants and make sure that undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. with no criminal record register for legal status.” Another 26 percent said they somewhat support the bill, and 14 percent strongly opposed it.
“Texas is ground zero in addressing this problem,” said Brad Bailey, the co-founder and CEO of Texas Immigration Solution, which supports the Senate measure. “With 1,200 miles of border, we see the problems face to face.”
Bailey and Robert F. Loughran, an immigration law expert with FosterQuan law firm in Houston, said that although the focus of the reform effort is on the Senate, the importance of reaching out to U.S. House members shouldn’t be minimized. Last week, the GOP-controlled House voted to overturn a 2012 executive order in which President Obama declared that DREAM Act-eligible youths could apply for a two-year reprieve from deportation proceedings. It’s not likely to survive in the Senate, but House members who oppose the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill saw the vote as a show of force.
Loughran said that members of the organizations that commissioned the poll have been in touch with Poe and U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. The congressmen agreed, he said, that lawmakers should act like “statesmen and not politicians” and avoid voting to please only primary voters.
Bailey also said he would urge Texas Comptroller Susan Combs to revisit a study conducted in 2006 by her predecessor, Carol Keeton Strayhorn, on the economic costs and contributions of Texas’ undocumented immigrant population. Last week, U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, wrote Combs a letter asking her to update the report. The 2006 report said that if the estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants who lived in the state in 2005 were sent home, Texas would have lost about $17.7 billion in gross domestic product that year. Local governments, according to the report, lost about $1.44 billion in combined health care and law enforcement costs that were not reimbursed by the state.
“It’s the most important factual data that is out there. It looks at education, prison [costs], health care, property tax,” Bailey said.