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N.M. senators hopeful about immigration reform

The Senate on Thursday passed a landmark immigration reform bill with enthusiastic support from New Mexico’s U.S. senators, who were relieved to see the bill clear the upper chamber of Congress with a decisive vote.

Indeed, the bill passed 68-32 with support of 14 Senate Republicans. According to some pundits, that sends a message to the U.S. House that the Senate – and by extension a majority of Americans – really, really wants them to pass the Senate bill. That may be true, but Republican House Speaker John Boehner is bristling at suggestions that the House should rubber-stamp the Senate legislation, which includes a so-called “path to citizenship” for some 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S. That provision is a non-starter for many Republicans.

The immigration issue is deeply divisive for members of the GOP, some of whom – perhaps most vocally Sen. John McCain of Arizona – are practically pleading with the House to pass some kind of reform bill or risk, well, alienating Hispanic voters. Others, such as Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas (who made news earlier this month with his remark about male fetuses pleasuring themselves as part of an abortion debate) contend that legalizing 11 million illegal immigrants is akin to adding 11 million Democrats to the voting rolls.

Boehner on Thursday vowed to ignore the Senate immigration legislation unless he finds it has support from a majority of his party, which controls the House. That prospect seems pretty dim at the moment. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., has said he would oppose the Senate legislation.

Boehner said during a press briefing in the Capitol on Thursday, “We’re going to do our own bill through regular order, and it’ll be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people.”

Meanwhile, the Senate bill approved last week only garnered as much Republican support as it did because the Gang of Eight shepherding the bill allowed Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., to beef up – or lard up, depending on how you look at it – the bill’s border security provisions. The amendment would double the number of Border Patrol agents to 40,000, establish 700 miles of new fencing, require an e-verify system for migrant workers – among other things – and cost an extra $38 billion.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., voted for a procedural maneuver last week to include the Corker-Hoeven amendment in the immigration package and move to a vote on the final bill. But in an interview last week, he sounded as if he might have held his nose a bit in the process.

“There are definitely parts of Corker-Hoeven that are a bit over the top and not the wisest use of resources,” Heinrich said, noting that doubling the number or Border Patrol agents was especially questionable.

“It’s not only about Border Patrol agents, it’s also about making sure your ports of entry are adequately staffed, its about having the customs officers to do the work that need to be done at each of those ports of entry,” Heinrich said. “One of my challenges with some colleagues who don’t deal with (border issues) every day is that they think the whole solution is just about the border patrol agents – and they are important. That’s an important part of how you secure the border – but you also have to have the courts and the ports of entry and all those pieces staffed adequately to work together as one seamless whole. I don’t necessarily think Corker-Hoeven struck that balance.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., suggested earlier this month that the extra Border Patrol agents could be a boon for the New Mexico economy.

“Doubling the number of Border Patrol agents would have a great impact in New Mexico – our state is home to about 1,500 agents already,” Udall said. “These agents are valuable federal employees who do a great service, and we’ve seen illegal crossings plummet in the last eight years, thanks to their work.”

In a statement Thursday, Udall said he appreciated the Republican support for the bill in the Senate.

“I didn’t agree with everything in the Corker-Hoeven amendment, but supported it because of the importance of strengthening our border security,” Udall said. “We need to reform our broken immigration system, and accomplishing something that complex takes compromise and the willingness to work together. In the last few years, Congress has certainly not done that well. So this is a really positive step forward, and I hope the House will follow our lead.”

E-mail: mcoleman@abqjournal.com

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