SALT LAKE CITY – Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch says the passage of a tough border enforcement amendment to the Senate’s Gang of Eight immigration bill resulted in a “much better bill” that led to his support of the measure.
Hatch was one of just 14 Republican senators who voted for the landmark legislation, calling it "far from perfect, but it takes a number of strong steps forward to strengthening border security, addressing our short- and long-term labor needs, and ensuring that anyone who comes to our country is responsible for paying into the system."
The amendment would devote some $30 billion over the next 10 years to nearly double the number of border agents to 40,000, complete 700 miles of fencing and expand use of technology such as drone aircraft and long-range thermal imaging cameras.
The Senate bill also offers a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country.
But Sen. Mike Lee, also a Republican, delivered a speech on the Senate floor Thursday opposing the bill as "an enormous disappointment" that fails in a number of areas, including assuring that border security will be beefed up and treating people trying to come to the country legally fairly.
Lee also said that under the legislation, there would still be as many as 8 million people in the country illegally a decade from now.
Hatch said earlier this week the Senate’s approval of the bill would be “step No. 1. I’m hoping the House will come up with a better bill and we will go to conference (committee) and resolve that. Hopefully we will continue to improve this bill to the point everyone will be happy with it.”
For local immigration attorneys attending the national convention of the American Immigration Lawyers Association meeting in San Francisco, an overhaul of the nation’s unworkable laws is long overdue.
Chris Keen, immediate past president of the Utah chapter of the AILA, said he is often unable to help many people who want to rectify their immigration status — and can’t — because of outdated laws and quotas.
“I see so many people with these problems that want to be positive, contributing members of our community and they’re shackled by our broken immigration system,” he said. Not only do individuals suffer, their inability to achieve legal status harms their spouses, children and their employers, he said.
The events of the past week have been frustrating, Keen said, including for those who opposed tougher border security measures and some members of the House who vocally oppose the Gang of Eight legislation.
“It does give me some pause and concern. Is there anything that can make them happy before we do what they need to do to fix the immigration system?”
He said the actions of the House are critical. “If they don’t take this chance to fix it, when is it going to be fixed?” he said.
Roger Tsai, a Salt Lake immigration attorney who represents corporate clients and individuals with immigration problems, said Hatch and Lee met with many immigration stakeholders in Utah during their previous recess.
“That seemed to be very positive overall. It indicated that this was not going to be politicized,” he said.
While some members in Congress needed to be placated with stronger border enforcement before supporting the Gang of Eight bill, Tsai said it is still unclear how the reforms will better address people who overstay tourist visas.
“That’s not an issue readily dealt with with more boots on ground,” he said.
Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute Utah think tank, said he believes the 1,100-plus-page bill may overwhelm House members.
“I think that bill will not pass the House. It’s just too controversial. I used to think the piecemeal approach was not a good idea. It may be the only way we get what we need,” Mero said.
Mero said he fears that few members of Congress will read the entire bill. “Because of that, they won’t have the capacity to fully engage in the debate. When you lack that capacity, you default to ‘No.’ That’s what I think will happen here.”