A Single, Controversial 'Poison Pill' Threatens To Totally Derail Immigration Reform

John Cornyn

Though the immigration reform bill cleared its first significant hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday, certain developments still threaten to derail the legislation’s passage in the legislative body. 

One planned amendment, in particular, has already sparked controversy on both sides of the aisle. Democrats call it a “poison pill.” Some conservative Republicans say the amendment needs to be added to boost border security.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is planning to introduce the amendment on the Senate floor. It would serve as the equivalent of tearing out and replacing much of the current border security section contained in the bill.

No vote has been scheduled for the amendment yet. But it will likely be the key vote to watch.

Cornyn’s amendment, which is backed by “Gang of Eight” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), aims to create a set of four “triggers” that would need to be met before unauthorised immigrants currently living in the U.S. could move along in a pathway to citizenship. 

The four triggers:

  1. “Monitoring capability” at every segment of the U.S.-Mexico border;
  2. Meeting a target of at least 90 per cent apprehension rate along Southern border;
  3. A “Biometric Exit System,” which would ensure workers don’t overstay their visas, must be fully operational and in use;
  4. A nationwide “E-verify” system must be implemented.

The most controversial provision in the planned amendment is the 90 per cent apprehension rate. The current bill requires the Department of Homeland Security secretary to submit a plan to meet that goal. 

The Cornyn amendment would make that provision a “hard trigger.” In other words, DHS would have to provide some metric proof that it is meeting the 90 per cent goal. If it can’t, then those with Registered Provisional Immigrant status would not be able to apply for lawful permanent resident status, which would provide for possible citizenship within three years.

A senior Democratic Senate aide told Business Insider that the provision in the amendment threatens to undermine the entire idea of the path to citizenship. The goals should not be set in stone, the aide suggested, because there are so many variables that could affect the target over the next decade.

“The goal is obviously to meet the goals as soon as possible and all parties involved will work hard towards that goal, but it’s conceivable that it could be many years before all of the metrics are met,” the aide said.

“It’s conceivable that they could never be met, or that opponents of legalization could at least be able to argue they aren’t met. So tying the path to the metrics puts the entire idea of a path to citizenship in jeopardy.”

There is also fundamental distrust of Cornyn and other conservative Republicans in Democratic leadership. The Democratic leaders fear that Cornyn’s wish is to derail the bill. Even if they agree to accept Cornyn’s provisions, they think he and other conservatives will end up voting against the bill. 

Immigration reform advocates point to Cornyn’s role in previous immigration debates as a point of concern. 

The final bill that came before the Senate in 2007 was intended to earn the support of Republicans like Cornyn, who had a role in crafting the framework of the bill. But he ended up voting against “cloture” on the bill, which would have brought it to a final vote.

“There is also a general sense based on Cornyn’s voting record that he is not trying to be constructive, he is just trying to weaken the bill,” the senior Democratic aide said. “He has voted against virtually every major immigration bill and voted in judiciary to strip out the path to citizenship.”

Democrats, however, have a dilemma. Making some concessions on border security and earning broad Senate support would theoretically increase pressure on the House to pass its own measure.

“They can probably get 60 votes for the legislation in its current form and bet that the House will be under serious pressure to pass legislation even without strong Senate momentum, which is probably true,” Eurasia Group analyst Sean West said in a note. “Or they can broker a deal with conservative Republicans looking for tighter border controls to build that momentum — which would increase the chances of overall passage.”

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