Border Triggers Could Sink Immigration Deal

Republicans' insistence that border-security benchmarks be met before legalizing 11-12 million illegal immigrants could sink an emerging compromise measure that is expected to be unveiled in a few weeks.

The “Gang of Eight” senators negotiating a sweeping immigration bill are on track to unveil draft legislation at the beginning of April, according to congressional aides. Similarly, a bipartisan group of House members is honing its own version. The cornerstone of both measures is a mass probationary legalization of noncriminal undocumented immigrants.

Legalization is a significant concession from Republicans, who are reluctant to give breaks to immigrants who violated the law. They acknowledge, however, that mass deportation is not possible and that millions of illegal residents are bad for national security.

Conservatives are worried that once a bill passes, legalization will take the pressure off immigration authorities to stop further illegal entry and to find and deport those who manage to make it in without authorization. To keep that from happening, the negotiators are discussing a variety of enforcement-related benchmarks, or “triggers,” that would need to be met before the population of undocumented immigrants can move toward citizenship.

But some lawmakers worry that forestalling citizenship in the name of border security may not be enough of an incentive for the authorities. After all, only half of legal immigrants in the country now go to the trouble of becoming U.S. citizens. Once the illegal population is given provisional legal status, they might not be clamoring as hard for government action that would allow them to become full-fledged citizens.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a leading voice for tea-party conservatives on immigration, has suggested that even the probationary legalization of illegal immigrants should wait until some enforcement mechanisms are in place. “We have to have enforcement triggers happen before anyone receives any kind of legal status,” he said Wednesday. “Certain objective triggers that we can measure.”

Labrador is walking a tightrope between the tea-party House members who follow his lead on immigration and the immigrant-friendly lawmakers with whom he is trying to strike a deal. The two groups don’t speak the same language. For hardcore conservatives, only tough enforcement benchmarks could give them enough comfort to support the legislation. “We cannot simply legalize 12 million people and enforce the laws later,” Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday.

But Labrador’s suggestion is a deal-breaker for immigrant advocates and Democrats. “Whoever’s saying that, they’re trying to kill the bill before it even gets started,” said Alison Reardon, legislative consultant for the Service Employees International Union, which represents thousands of immigrant workers. “We should continue to work to secure our borders, but there’s no way to do that and wait for legalization. Border security is an ongoing thing.”

The Obama administration isn’t helping on this front, because it has been more aggressive than any previous administration in deporting and detaining illegal immigrants. Almost half of those in deportation proceedings have committed no other crimes.

Stopping the current flow of deportations is the top priority for the Latino and immigrant communities, who are closely watching Congress’s deliberations. “You’ll deport 1,400 people today. You’ll deport 1,400 people tomorrow and the next day and the next day until we do comprehensive immigration reform,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., at a hearing Tuesday where the Homeland Security Department’s director of immigration and customs enforcement, John Morton, explained the detention and deportation practices.

There may be a middle ground between the two sides of the issue. DHS can certainly up its enforcement game, particularly on the border, while it is drafting rules for legalizing the illegal population. Once a bill passes, the immigration-enforcement agencies can also be directed to hold off on any new detentions of illegal immigrants who might qualify for probationary legal status. That generally would not affect activities along the border because very recent illegal entrants to the United States would not qualify for legalization in any case.

It all comes down to the optics and the details. Will the bill's enforcement provisions be tough enough to satisfy conservatives? Will the legalization provisions be generous enough to satisfy civil-rights and immigration-reform groups? If the answer to both questions is "yes," the legislation will pass. If not, it will make for an impressive political showdown.