WASHINGTON -- Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform finally got their chance on Wednesday to see the full text of a bill from the Senate gang of eight. Despite their praise, they said they found plenty of reasons for concern.
Pro-reform groups hailed the bill overall as a historic step for immigrant rights, particularly its provision to allow undocumented immigrants to gain eventual citizenship. But the advocates said they don't plan to back down on efforts to improve it. Gay rights groups and supporters decried the lack of help for binational same-sex couples. Immigrant rights groups said they worried that the bill's pathway to citizenship is too lengthy and restrictive, and that border provisions may damage the ability of undocumented immigrants to gain legal status. Civil liberties groups said provisions to require E-Verify, a government online employment verification system, may be a slippery slope to a national ID system.
"It's sort of a 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,' and this isn't perfect, but it's probably better than good," Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said. "We really have something that is the product of this bipartisan committee. It's actually very interesting, some aspects are extremely creative, really good thinking about how to solve problems, and some of it really is holding on with a white-knuckled death grip to concepts in our existing immigration law that frankly don't work."
Senators have remained quiet on amendments they may plan, but there are likely to be many. On the more progressive end, there is likely to be an amendment to consider same-sex couples as families under immigration law, a measure that was left out of the gang of eight bill and is considered a non-starter by group members Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Michael Tan, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group will continue to push to stop what it sees as damaging border provisions that may lead to more detentions, along with tying legalization to border triggers. The ACLU also is concerned about the E-Verify portion of the bill. Despite those issues, Tan said it's mostly a positive bill.
"That's the way I'm coming at it right now -- sort of heartened by some things and very troubled by other things," Tan said.
A coalition of immigrant right groups will lobby senators on the Judiciary Committee for amendments, said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change. He said his group and others will continue to push for inclusion of undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. after the cutoff date of Dec. 31, 2011, and to simplify the path to citizenship. Bhargava said they hope to find support from Democrats such as Chris Coons of Delaware, Al Franken of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Overall, though, "it's certainly a more progressive starting point than we had in 2006 or 2007," Bhargava said.
On the other side, opponents of reform said there's not much to like in the bill and promised to fight to kill it.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he appreciates "the hard work that went into this bill," but doesn't expect it to go anywhere. "As we explore its many flaws and loopholes in the coming days, I am confident the American public will firmly reject it -- and will demand reform that puts the national interest first," he said in a statement.
In the House, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) -- who formerly chaired the influential Judiciary Committee -- indicated he views the bill as a non-starter, and promised to continue work on separate legislation there instead.
"It's hard to believe, but the Senate immigration bill is worse than we thought," Smith said on the House floor. "Despite assurances, the border is not secured before almost everyone in the country illegally is given amnesty. The bill guarantees there will be a rush across the border to take advantage of massive amnesty."
There will be efforts from outside Washington to bring down the bill. NumbersUSA, a group that favors restricting immigration levels, said the bill would hurt American workers because it allows for more legal immigrants, not less, and the public will not support it. Founder Roy Beck, said the group would increase advertising against the bill and ask members to call Senate offices.
"It's really difficult to see how it could possibly be amended to make it successful," Beck said.