Texas Senators Split as U.S. Congress Takes Up Immigration Reform

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john cornyn
U.S. Senator for Texas John Cornyn.

The U.S. Senate’s vote Tuesday to debate the bipartisan Gang of Eight’s immigration bill on the Senate floor surprised DREAMers and bill negotiators, who had hoped for at least 60 votes to move the bill forward, but actually received 82 votes. The 15 senators who voted against the bill were Republicans, including Texas’ Ted Cruz, who said the bill would “make the problem of illegal immigration … worse rather than better.” Despite Cruz’s failed attempt to block the legislation, 28 Republicans voted to move forward on the bill, which would provide an eventual and conditional pathway to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Texas’ other Senator John Cornyn voted to move the bill forward but then offered an amendment, which two bill negotiators referred to as a “poison pill.” Cornyn wants the ability to monitor every mile of the international border and a 90 percent apprehension rate of immigrants trying to cross it illegally. The amendment would bar undocumented immigrants from applying for legal status until after these and other conditions are met. Cornyn and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky say Cornyn’s amendment is essential to securing conservative support in both chambers. But border residents say they’re sick of border fences being built around their homes and the increased surveillance and militarization of their communities, which has only resulted in more migrant deaths along the border.

Still, Cornyn told his fellow senators Tuesday that the Senate’s bill will not survive in the House where there is a Republican majority without his amendment:

“Here’s the bottom line and the reality,” he said on the Senate floor. “Without a border security trigger, immigration reform will be dead on arrival in the House of Representatives. My amendment provides such a trigger, the gang of eight bill does not. … My amendment is essential to moving this legislation forward and to getting an outcome that ultimately will end up on the president’s desk.”

Gang of Eight Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, reportedly told immigration reformers at a Washington, D.C., event that Cornyn is bluffing and that his vote is not crucial to the bill passing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, called Cornyn’s amendment a “poison pill” meant to kill the legislation because Democrats will not back the “trigger” provision that makes immigrants’ legal status dependent on stringent border security measures. Today, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who is part of the Gang of Eight, echoed Reid’s concerns.

“I am confident we will get a bill passed, and I hope – I sincerely hope – our colleagues in the House will take our lead and pass comprehensive immigration reform this year,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, said as he wrapped up his introduction of the bill on the Senate floor. “I hope they will join us in realizing the time has come for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Si, se puede.”

But border security – and the degree to which it needs to be beefed up to stem the flow of migrants traveling north – will be a central topic of debate as the bill moves forward, as will the specifics of the proposed pathway to citizenship. Though the bill currently proposes a long process toward citizenship, some senators have already started raising questions about what kinds of benefits legal immigrants would get, including welfare. A temporary visa program for high-tech and low-skilled workers will also be a component of the bill and will form part of the debate that will continue over the coming weeks.

Senators say they hope to pass a bill before the July 4 recess. But things may not go so smoothly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says a bipartisan group is working on its own version of an immigration bill.

Priscila Mosqueda is a contributing writer at the Observer, where she previously interned. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has appeared in InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, The Daily Beast, and various Central Texas outlets.