WASHINGTON — A landmark bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration system survived unscathed on Thursday during the first day of consideration by a divided Senate Judiciary Committee.
But the difficult road ahead for the reforms became more evident as Republican critics conducted a sustained assault on the legislation, demanding that it include considerably greater border security measures before legalizing any illegal immigrants.
The contentious beginning of the debate in the Senate, where the bill’s prospects for approval are better than in the House, was a clear signal of tough times ahead for the legislation.
During a 7½-hour hearing, the committee wrestled over 32 proposed changes focused on border security and control.
The amendment process is expected to last weeks.
Most of the senators on the committee voted to reject proposals from GOP members that would require the government to build 700 miles of double-layered fencing and maintain complete operational control of the entire southern border before allowing illegal immigrants to gain citizenship.
As each proposal was defeated, frustration mounted and tempers flared among the most conservative Republicans.
“The committee has voted down every serious border security amendment presented,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who lost his bid to scrap the legislation’s entire border control section and replace it with his own. “This committee has consistently rejected any attempt to put real teeth in it, and if it does not have that, in my opinion, this bill will not pass.”
In all, the committee adopted 21 amendments, including eight offered by Republicans.
Among them was a measure from Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), one of the fiercest critics of the bill, that expanded a requirement that the government apprehend 90 percent of people attempting to cross the border illegally from just high-risk sectors to the entire Southwest border.
Democrats, and two Republicans on the committee who helped negotiate the legislation, hailed the results as evidence that they were committed to a bipartisan process to improve the bill.
The measure represents the most far-reaching changes in the nation’s immigration system in three decades.
They characterized the GOP border-security offensive as an effort to lard the bill with unattainable security measures and make it more difficult for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants to gain legal status.
“Senator Cruz is opposed to a path to citizenship,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.). “No matter what we put in there in terms of border security, he cannot support any bill that has a path to citizenship. ... Let’s not keep bringing up this false issue that we’re doing nothing on border security.”
Border control was the opening flash point in a debate over an 844-page bill that also contains new measures to increase visas for low and high-skilled workers and eliminate some categories of family visas, which are likely to spark further clashes among Republicans and Democrats.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) has said he hopes to finish the debate on up to 300 amendments by the end of the month and send the bill to the full Senate in early June.
President Obama has thrown his support behind the legislation in hopes of avoiding the bitter partisanship that helped sink his efforts on gun control and deficit reduction. Some Republicans insist that they have to be certain that border control is a priority in any legislation before allowing illegal immigrants to earn legal status.
The committee approved measures to require more reports from federal agencies charged with enforcing border laws, to eliminate fees on immigrants who cross the border legally at ports of entry, and to give the Department of Homeland Security more leeway in how to spend $1.5 billion on border control strategies.