With the Senate well into its second week of debate on immigration and only one vote on the record, Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) says he’s still optimistic that an effective immigration reform bill will be passed by Congress.
"I feel confident that members of the Senate want to get a good bill out of the Senate but we realize that the ultimate endgame is going to be decided in the conference with the House," said Cornyn in a conference call Monday.
Recognizing the members of the House have a different approach to the immigration issues (pushing for border security first and foremost), the senator said he thinks that the Senate bill "goes much further" with more comprehensive detail.
The Senate bill, as it stands, is a combination of border security and enforcement proposed by Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) coupled with a guest-worker program submitted by Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) based on the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill.
Cornyn said he was pleased to see many of the details for securing the border lifted from a bill he sponsored with Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) but said he doesn’t support the Senate bill as it currently sits on the floor. He said he is hoping that a variety of amendments are offered that will improve the bill.
He said he agrees with President Bush that the bill passed in 1986 to "reform" immigration was a mistake that should not be repeated.
"I think that there are two things that people agree upon in terms of the 1986 bill and that is, no. 1, that it was amnesty, and no. 2, that it was a complete and total failure."
Cornyn said he would like to see a "temporary-worker program" (he is careful to distinguish it from the "guest-worker program" proposed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he says is "in no sense temporary") put into place that would allow businesses to get the labor they need but not reward lawbreakers with automatic citizenship. As laid out in the Cornyn-Kyl bill, the program would "better suit the fluctuations, the peaks and valleys of the U.S. economy and the labor market and if we can get it permanent it has the potential of including a lot of new foreign-born workers who, in a down market, would compete for jobs with people born in the United States," he said.
The plan would have a strict return requirement for those wanting to become U.S. citizens but would also be mild enough to coax hiding illegals out of the shadows and allow them to get permission to work legally for a temporary time period, he said.
Acknowledging that many people enter the country illegally to provide a better life for their families, Cornyn said the end goal, in his mind, would be to restore a pattern of circular migration.
"No country can sustain the hollowing out or mass exodus of its own people and still provide opportunities in their own country," he explained.
At the very least, Cornyn said, these alterations he listed off need to be made in order to move the bill forward in a positive direction. Even then, he warned that without a real commitment to securing the border and the money to do so, it won’t matter what other provisions are included in the bill.
"Obviously, none of this is going to work unless we are actually committed to seeing the enforcement provisions fully funded, by the federal government, and deployed, whether they be at the border, the interior or the workplace," Cornyn said.
Texans have been calling the senator’s office to voice their opposition to amnesty, but as Cornyn explained, everyone has their own definition of amnesty.
"People are very frustrated by federal government’s unwillingness to secure our borders," he said. "Being a senator from a border state, it’s a challenge to meet demands of security between the ports of entry so we know who’s coming into the country and why but also, at the same time, to welcome lawful commerce and visitors which create a lot of jobs in my state."
At the same time, the senator acknowledged the struggle of making sure the desire to secure the border doesn’t come off as "anti-immigrant" in any way.
"We do need to be careful because we are indeed a nation of immigrations but also a nation of laws, and we can’t lay claim to that heritage given the current situation," he said.
Update — 11:17 a.m.: I forgot to mention that Tim Chapman of Townhall.com asked Sen. Cornyn about how this whole debate will affect Republicans politically. Cornyn explained that while Republicans are divided over the issue, Democrats are as well.
In fact, according to Chapman, Sen. David Vitter (R.-La.) will offer an amendment today to strike the guest-worker/amnesty provisions of Sen. Specter’s bill — something Chapman predicts will only deepen divisions among Republicans.