“Real Hearings”: The Search for Another Scapegoat if Conservatives Want to Stop Immigration Reform

My colleague Matthew Yglesias walks through the unseen but generally unrebutted “deal” on immigration between the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. (This is sometimes, just as accurately, referred to as the deal between “business and labor.” But credit where due.) This isn’t very Slatey, but I agree with him – it’s hard to see what labor really lost here. The guest worker program doesn’t allow businesses to duck below the prevailing wage and save money. In the very long term, the guest worker can switch jobs and eventually earn citizenship.

But if labor’s happy, conservatives are out one scapegoat. That’s the context in which to read Sen. Marco Rubio’s tut-tutting statements about the deal, which were released in a burst yesterday. “We will need,” he said, “a healthy public debate that includes committee hearings and the opportunity for other senators to improve our legislation with their own amendments.” In a long letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, he goes on about the need for “fresh hearings, “meaningful hearings,” “careful examination,” and “full and careful consideration of legislative language and an open process of amendments.”

What’s he doing? He’s signing up with the Senate conservatives’ current scapegoat game. Last month, Sen. Jeff Sessions wrote another open letter asking for hearings on immigration and for an amendment process. It seemed odd at the time – there’s no way to do this without pushing it through judiciary – but it bolstered the idea that the White House was cramming something scary though Congress before there would be time to read it. And like Benjy Sarlin says, the ol’ “I’m with you, but I have some unanswerable process questions” gambit has harpooned many a bill.

In 2009, former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) voted for health care reform in committee, citing an urgent need for change, then opposed it two months later while claiming the vote was too rushed. In 2010, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) dropped out of bipartisan talks on energy and immigration because the White House wanted to tackle the two issues in the wrong order. At least Graham lasted longer than Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who personally introduced climate change and immigration bills in 2007 then abandoned both causes as soon as President Obama took office.

Yes, it’s a common tactic. Note that Rubio’s objections completely elide the issues that looked threatening to immigration at the start of the year, like benefits for LGBT partners. He’s just talking generically about the need for more time, which could theoretically pave the way for damaging amendments, if… oh, to pick an example completely at random, if the Chamber of Commerce or AFL-CIO wanted some damaging amendments.

The letter:

Dear Chairman Leahy:

As you know, I am part of a bipartisan group of Senators that has spent the last several months attempting to craft a consensus bill to fix our nation’s broken immigration system.  We have made considerable progress towards an approach that will secure our nation’s borders, provide for robust interior enforcement, establish an effective entry and exit system, and maintain a lawful future flow of immigrants and workers to meet the needs of a dynamic and growing economy. We also create a tough but fair approach that will allow many people currently here illegally to earn the ability to apply for legalization and eventually, after certain triggers are met, removes prohibitions for them to apply for a green card.

You have stated on multiple occasions that you believe immigration reform should be the legislative priority of your Committee this year.  We are grateful for that commitment and look forward to your leadership, and that of Ranking Member Grassley, as the process moves forward.  Sensitive to your prerogatives as Chairman, I write to express my strong belief that the success of any major legislation depends on the acceptance and support of the American people.  That support can only be earned through full and careful consideration of legislative language and an open process of amendments.

While you and your colleagues on the Judiciary Committee will agree on the details, I respectfully suggest that such a process must begin with a careful examination in the Committee including: hearings that explore multiple perspectives on the scope of the problems we face and the efficacy of the solutions we propose, markups in which a broad range of amendments can be considered, and a robust floor debate.  All of this, and any Conference Committee deliberations, should occur in the full view of the American people, broadcast on CSPAN, and streamed live on the internet.

I am aware that the Judiciary Committee, both under your leadership and under the leadership of your predecessors, has conducted a number of hearings related to immigration reform.  I am certain that those hearings deepened your knowledge of these issues and will guide much of your work this Congress.  But they cannot be a substitute for fresh hearings to consider specific legislation as part of a national conversation.  You have said the well-meaning disagreements senators have about these issues should be part of “a discussion we need to have out in the open, in front of the American people.”  I agree.

I cannot urge strongly enough that such a discussion start with meaningful hearings.  Of particular importance is a full consideration of border security proposals, including testimony from border security experts, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and others.  A key feature of our bipartisan approach has been an insistence on meeting border security and other enforcement triggers before unauthorized immigrants can apply for permanent residence.  But the success of these triggers will require examining what the American taxpayer’s commitment must be in order to make this security plan a reality.

For example, the legislation we will propose as a starting point for debate provides an estimate of money that will be required to fully implement the border security and fencing plan. But we need hearings to determine exactly how much money must be appropriated and which measures are most needed to achieve our border enforcement goals.

You have said that “delay for delay’s sake” would be a mistake in this matter, I agree. But excessive haste in the pursuit of a lasting solution is perhaps even more dangerous to the goals many of us share.  We owe it to the American people to get immigration reform right this time, so that future Congresses and future generations do not face the broken system we see today.  A rush to legislate, without fully considering all views and input from all senators, would be fatal to the effort of earning the public’s confidence.


Marco Rubio