Analysis: Why Democrats Are Afraid of Border Security

Ross D. Franklin/AP file photo

For the Senate to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, Republicans are going to have to start trusting Democrats or Democrats are going to have to start trusting Republicans.

Good luck with that.

Senate Republicans don't believe President Obama will enforce the bill's border-security provisions--and they don't want to let millions of illegal immigrants begin working their way toward citizenship until they see the president is serious about locking down the borders. That's why they want those immigrants' eligibility for citizenship to be contingent, or “triggered,” on the U.S. Border Patrol meeting benchmarks.

But Democrats don't think Republicans will play fair when it comes to such a trigger. They fear Republicans will hold out for a trigger and then vote against the bill anyway. Or set benchmarks for a trigger that can't be reached. Or establish a trigger but then deny the Border Patrol the funding it needs to meet the benchmarks.

“The lack of trust is real,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican in the middle of the trigger back-and-forth. He is a member of the Senate “gang” who sympathizes with Democrats’ desires to legalize the undocumented population but also with Republicans’ concerns that border security will never be taken seriously.

And everyone, Graham said, is worrying about their leverage.

Enter Sen. John Cornyn--the Texas Republican proposing an amendment that would require border apprehensions to be at 90 percent and surveillance/border awareness to be at 100 percent before immigrants on provisional visas can become eligible for green cards, the ticket to citizenship.

Cornyn is an important figure in the immigration debate. He is the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, also from a border state, who could bring many skeptical conservatives along with him in support of the sweeping legislation. But his demands are high, and many Democrats worry if they kowtow to him, he will still oppose the legislation in the end. (Many immigration-reform advocates remember that they were burned in this way in 2007, when Cornyn voted against a similarly broad immigration bill even after its sponsors went to great lengths to accommodate him.)

Graham, something of a Democrat-whisperer for conservatives, may understand better than anyone the strength of the other party’s paranoia. “Here’s the problem for our Democratic colleagues,” he said Tuesday. “If you say 90 percent operational control of the border, it wouldn’t be hard to envision a Republican-controlled wing of the Congress where they undercut the ability to get to 90 percent through lack of funding.” 

On all but a few key points, Cornyn’s amendment is in line with the border provisions in the underlying bill. The base bill includes the same border-apprehension and surveillance benchmarks. Cornyn’s amendment adds to that by putting citizenship eligibility on the line. The base bill includes an entry-exit system to keep track of all foreigners who enter and leave the country. Cornyn’s amendment adds to that by requiring fingerprints at the most used airports and seaports.

Democrats, knowing many Republicans whose support they will need on final passage approve of the border-trigger concept, say they are willing to reshape Cornyn’s proposal such that it will answer their concerns. “We’re trying. We haven’t given up on it because we’d like to have John’s support,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the top-ranked Senate Democrat in the “Gang of Eight” that drafted the immigration bill.

It’s a long shot, though, because Durbin was clear on this point: “90 percent trigger is totally unacceptable.”

Cornyn sees his advantage in raw politics. "I think if they had 60 votes to pass the bill out of the Senate, they probably wouldn't be talking to me. But they are,” he said.

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