Immigration reform bill largely untouched going into fifth day of debate

A bipartisan group of senators begins a fifth full day of debating changes to the immigration reform bill Tuesday. So far, the so-called mark-up process has left the sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws—which would legalize most of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants—largely untouched.

On Tuesday, the senators will address some of the final controversial changes to the bill, including increasing the number of visas for the high tech industry and whether to allow people in same-sex marriages to apply for green cards for their spouses. A final vote is expected by the end of the week.

Republicans are outnumbered on the 18-member Senate Judiciary Committee, and two of them—Sens. Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham—helped draft the original bipartisan bill in the first place. Nonetheless, Republican senators have been able to push through a few amendments that they say will strengthen the enforcement portion of the bill.

On Monday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, introduced an amendment that would require officials at 30 major airports to take the fingerprints of departing foreign visitors as a way to better keep track of which people on temporary visas had left the country when they were supposed to. Graham, meanwhile, passed an amendment that would prevent people applying for asylum from returning to their home countries to visit unless they showed there was good cause to do so. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, also passed an amendment that would bar unauthorized immigrants with three drunken driving convictions from legalizing.

Attempts by Republican senators to levy tougher criminal penalties on people who illegally enter the country or to prevent unauthorized immigrants from ever becoming citizens have failed, to the disappointment of groups that oppose the reform bill.

"We don't think the changes are very meaningful," said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that promotes lower levels of immigration.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the center, said the group wants the greater enforcement of the border and employment verification portions of the bill to take place before any undocumented immigrant is eligible to legalize his or her status. Efforts to change the bill to do so in the committee have failed.

Meanwhile, immigrant rights groups are cautiously optimistic. "So far, so good," said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice, an immigrant advocacy group. "It's clear that the opponents of immigration reform are just trying to find every little way to pick apart the bill in hopes of destabilizing the coalition," but haven't been successful, she added.

Democrats successfully passed amendments that would allow unauthorized immigrants to pay their legalization fees in installments and would restrict the circumstances when immigration detainees could be put in solitary confinement.

Advocates expect the mark-up process to end this week, with the full bill introduced on the Senate floor sometime after the Senate's Memorial Day recess in early June. The House, which is working on its own version of a bill, is expected to release its draft version in early June, as well.