THE immigration bill taken up this week by the Senate judiciary committee, says Jeff Sessions, one of its members, is like a “mackerel in the sunshine—the longer it’s out there, the worse it smells”. To lengthen its spell in the sun, he and other opponents are freighting it with amendments. Meanwhile the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, has released a report claiming that provisions giving America’s 11m-odd illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens would cost America $6.3 trillion over the next 50 years. So far, the bipartisan alliance behind the bill appears to be holding. But the debate is revealing how delicate that coalition is, and how long and hard a fight it faces.
The bill tightens border security, increases the number of visas available to both skilled and unskilled workers and provides a long and testing “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants already in the country. A group of eight senators—four Democrats and four Republicans—cobbled it together with the blessing of such heavyweights as the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, America’s biggest confederation of unions. The hope is that the imprimatur of such outfits, along with that of respected senators from the left and right, should secure the bill’s passage despite intense scepticism—on the right in particular
But an amendment put forward by Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who chairs the judiciary committee, is already dividing the coalition. It would allow gay Americans to sponsor a foreign partner for a visa—something that is impossible at the moment. The Democratic majority on the committee supports the idea, but Republicans say that the amendment, if passed, will doom the bill on the Senate floor by scaring off Republican votes.
Most of the flood of amendments come from the Republican side: Mr Sessions has put forward 49 and Charles Grassley, another opponent of the bill, 77. Even Republicans who are in favour would like to see security on the border made yet more ferocious, and the path to citizenship narrower and more forbidding. The Democratic majority on the committee should be able to brush these challenges aside and usher the bill, more or less intact, to the Senate floor. At that point, a supermajority of 60 of the 100 senators (which the Democrats lack) will be needed to advance it. The House of Representatives, with its Republican majority, will be more hostile territory still.
The bill’s supporters will take heart from the fact that its opponents disagree among themselves. Some have called for more visas for temporary workers; others for fewer, for example. Moreover, opposition outside Congress seems feebler now than in 2007, when widespread fulminations against “amnesty” for illegal immigrants derailed a similar bill. A host of Republican grandees, from Haley Barbour, a former governor of Mississippi, to Paul Ryan, the party’s leading budget wonk, rushed to denounce the Heritage report. They complained (rightly) that it failed to take proper account of the benefits of immigration and exaggerated the costs.
Most important, argued Marco Rubio, one of the eight drafters of the bill and the son of working-class Cuban immigrants, it implied that there would be little upward mobility for the bill’s new-minted citizens—a view his own elevation to the Senate suggests is too pessimistic.