The Senate's bipartisan immigration bill faced its first trial in the Judiciary Committee Thursday as lawmakers began debate on more than 300 amendments ranging from complicated provisions like strengthening border security to simple tasks like cleaning up typos in the bill.
"This is the only chance we are going to have," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., noted in opening remarks, reflecting on the historic significance of the immigration markup.
Members of the "gang of eight" including Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who serve on the committee, appeared united as some GOP lawmakers expressed extreme skepticism in the bill's sweeping reforms and "toothless metrics" on border security.
"No one can dispute that this bill is legalization first, enforcement later," ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said.
Flake and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., voted with Democrats to strike down one of Grassley's amendment that would have required the Department of Homeland Security to establish "operational control" of the border for a period of six months before immigrants already here illegally would be allowed to gain legal status.
Lawmakers powered through 17 amendments before breaking for lunch. But some of the most controversial pieces have yet to be debated. Republicans filed nearly 200 amendments and Democrats filed just over 100.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., filed an amendment that would give "little dreamers" an accelerated path to citizenship. The DREAM Act, which is part of the 844-page immigration bill ,would allow individuals who came to the U.S. illegally before the age of 16 a five-year path for citizenship. Blumenthal's amendment would give younger immigrants the same opportunity instead of the 13-year path currently provided in the bill.
Another amendment, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would require all immigrants who came to the country illegally to provide DNA samples to the federal government before they could be put on an eventual path to citizenship. Under current law, only immigrants who are detained by U.S. customs must provide DNA. Hatch says the hope is that the DNA samples would give law enforcement the chance to vet forensics against evidence in crime labs and ensure that the country does not allow immigrants with a criminal past the right to stay in the U.S.
The amendment has angered some human rights groups, however, who argue the law would violate the rights of immigrants.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D- Vt., authored amendments that would give same-sex, binational couples the chance to sponsor their partners for green cards. Republicans in the gang of eighthave warned that including the provision in the bill would sink the carefully-crafted legislation.
And Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who has been an outspoken opponent of the gang's proposal from the start, issued 50 amendments. One would require Homeland Security to weigh the likelihood that an immigrant might use federal assistance in the future when deciding whether or not to give an individual legal status.
"In considering the application of an alien for registered provisional immigrant status, the Secretary shall consider the likelihood of the alien's reliance, at any point in the future, on cash and non-cash Federal means-tested public benefit," the amendment reads.
The way the current bill is written, immigrants who are put on a path to citizenship are not eligible for any federal benefits including food stamps or welfare until after they become citizens, which would take upwards of 13 years.