Immigration rally at Capitol as senators race to finish bill

WASHINGTON--The bipartisan group of senators pushing to finish a sweeping immigration bill met late Wednesday as thousands of advocates gathered outside the Capitol, many waving American flags, to lend urgency to the effort.

The first draft of the bill is 1,000 pages, but the eight senators have yet to sign off on all its provisions. Disputes over agricultural workers and border security that had once appeared resolved remain in flux.

“We are closer now than we have been in 25 years for serious immigration reform,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said after a briefing over sandwiches and chips with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the House. “This president is behind it. And there is a strong, growing bipartisan effort in the Senate to support it. We hope that the House will do the same.”

The eight Republican and Democratic senators, who met for the first time as a group since returning to Washington from a two-week congressional recess, had a list of nearly 20 items to review, according to those familiar with the talks. Aides said they were unlikely to finish this week.

The group has limited time to strike an accord, which both parties have publicly said they want. The bill will undergo a robust amendment process in committee, along with an engaged floor debate--an effort that could stretch weeks, if not months, and bump into the start of the 2014 campaign season.


The proposed legislation would provide a 10-year path to citizenship for the nearly 11 million people who have overstayed visas or entered the country illegally. The opportunity would only be available after U.S. borders have been secured to prevent nearly all illegal crossings, however.

“A lot of people here would not want to put dollars into the border, but as a price to get citizenship--as long as it’s not an impediment to citizenship, but rather works alongside citizenship--is something we can all live with,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the eight senators drafting the bill. “Triggers have to be objective and attainable in a way that it doesn’t interfere or delay with people becoming citizens, and that’s in the bill.”

The senators have largely agreed to the broad outlines of border security measures, an especially contentious issue.

Under the draft, border security requirements will be fulfilled if, within five years, the Border Patrol has 100% “awareness” of when people cross the most trafficked sections of the Southwest border, and can stop or turn back 90% of them, according to a source familiar with the talks.

If the Border Patrol is unable to achieve that target, then a commission of border state governors and attorneys general will be given money and authority to implement further measures over the next five years.

In order for migrants who have probationary legal status to become eligible for permanent residency, the government must meet the border security goals, implement a system to track people who overstay their visas, and meet other requirements.

All this must be accomplished within 10 years of the bill being passed.

After making swift progress on the bill early this year, the group of senators now confronts the details.

Aides are holed up in a meeting room for hours each day working on the draft line by line. When disputes emerge, the senators are called in to reach consensus.

“For each person at the table there is at least one element in here that is unsettling,” said Durbin, a member of the group.

Protesters outside sought to nudge the senators along Wednesday. On a warm and sunny day, thousands of people filled the lawn between the Capitol steps and reflecting pool while musical groups played and labor leaders and community organizers made speeches urging Congress to pass immigration reform.

Jean Reimer, an 84-year-old Dominican nun from Grand Rapids, Mich., took a 12-hour bus ride to the rally with members of her Catholic diocese because she wanted to tell lawmakers to fix the immigration system and keep families together.

“Scripture tells us how we must treat migrants,” said Reimer, holding a small American flag. She said her father immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1911, and his stories of arriving at Ellis Island have stayed with her. “Don’t just touch it at the corners.”

Francisco Acosta, who runs a job-placement business in nearby Wheaton, Md., said he worried that the opportunity for reform may be lost if the senators didn’t act quickly.

“Now is the time,” Acosta said, holding a sign that read, “America is powered by immigrants.”