By Paul C. Barton
As the Senate begins debate Tuesday on comprehensive immigration reform, some Middle Tennessee members of Congress remain wary while others focus on key characteristics any such legislation must have to win their approval.
The upper chamber is taking up consideration of Senate Bill 744, developed by a bipartisan lawmakers known as the "Gang of Eight." The group included such well-known members as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
At the heart of the bill is a series of "triggers" or border-enforcement steps that must be enacted before undocumented immigrants already in the country could apply for citizenship or legal permanent residence. The Department of Homeland Security would have to reach 90 percent "effectiveness" in apprehending and returning undocumented immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance.
The bill defines effectiveness as the number of apprehensions and turn-backs along a section of the border divided by the total number of illegal entries. It does not define how officials will count the latter.
Another key is an electronic system for employers to use in verifying immigration status.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker said the border-security provisions of the bill remain insufficient for him.
"I continue to be hopeful that in the coming weeks Congress will do something productive for our country on immigration, but at this point, the border security and visa overstay issues have not been dealt with sufficiently," he said in a statement.
Fellow Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said he defines today's situation, which he considers unacceptable, as "de facto amnesty."
"Millions illegally here have de facto amnesty. At the same time, we are excluding scientists and workers who could help grow our economy."
He added: "I will be voting to secure our borders, end de facto amnesty and to establish an immigration system that respects the rule of law."
Skepticism in the House
Area members in the House, where the issue is expected to be considered later this summer, say they are watching the Senate debate closely.
"I support comprehensive immigration reform, and it's good that Congress is finally working together," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville. He said the Senate bill "looks promising," but that he is waiting on proposals under development in the House.
Reps. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, and Stephen Fincher, R-Frog Jump, remain skeptical of the Senate bill.
"I do not support the Senate immigration bill in its current form," DesJarlais said. "We cannot have any sort of pathway to citizenship until we are absolutely certain our borders are secure."
DesJarlais added: "Do we really trust the federal government to adhere to the 'border triggers' proposed in this bill once more than 11 million illegal immigrants have been granted amnesty? Further, I believe the Senate bill gives an advantage to those who entered our country illegally over the individuals who have tried to gain citizenship the right way."
Fincher said Congress shouldn't rush a bill through without addressing "the root problem -- border security."
"It's the only way to keep this from happening again in the future," he said.
Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, and Diane Black, R-Gallatin, declined comment. Blackburn said earlier this year, however, that she is interested in a system where people already in the country illegally have a way of "paying and righting those wrongs."
Blackburn has cosponsored two House bills to strengthen state and local authorities' ability to enforce immigration laws.