Friday, June 21, 2013 | 1:10 a.m.
Since he won his Senate seat in the 2012 election, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller has been saying that he wanted to play a central role in crafting comprehensive immigration reform.
In the home stretch, it looks like he’s getting his wish.
Heller is part of a group of senators who are helping to draft a critical border security amendment to the Gang of 8’s immigration proposal.
The measure was designed to answer the clamors of Republicans seeking stronger enforcement measures, who otherwise might have leveraged their support for immigration on the inclusion of a Texas Sen. John Cornyn amendment that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had termed a “poison pill” and Heller said “everyone knew … was too much for the other side.”
The alternative effort, led by Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, offered stronger border security measures than Cornyn’s amendment, but with fewer future roadblocks to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Heller and his staff were loath to discuss the senator’s specific contributions to the measure in detail prior to the release of final amendment language, expected Friday.
But it appears that Heller’s input largely influenced how an entire section of the amendment’s security benchmarks was crafted, and how the amendment was sold to the Senate Republicans.
“Heller’s been involved and working with us for some time now,” Hoeven told the Sun on Thursday. “But he’s been really good in terms of working with us and helping to get other people on board the bill.”
Before the introduction of the new border security amendment, the Republican Senate caucus could be roughly divided into three camps: A small group of three of the four Republican members of the Gang of 8 who were determined to support an immigration bill at almost any cost, a mid-sized group of very conservative Republicans determined to oppose the bill at any cost, and a large pool in the middle, open to voting for a compromise but unsure of whether to support the particulars of the immigration bill in front of them.
Heller described himself as “one of those skeptical Republican senators,” at a small press conference introducing the Corker-Hoeven border amendment Thursday. “I’ll tell you, a lot of us wouldn’t have come along if these guys hadn’t worked as hard as they did to put this package together.”
“I’m here for moral support,” Heller also joked, while flanked by Corker and Hoeven. “These guys needed it.”
Hoeven took that observation one step further: The support wasn’t just moral, it was critically influential.
“I think where [Heller]’s been particularly helpful is in getting some of our Republican colleagues on board,” Hoeven told the Sun Thursday. “He’s viewed as somebody who’s objective. So when guys like Dean get on, it makes a difference to our other colleagues.”
Hoeven said Heller had been motivated to join in their effort as a way of advancing standing concerns with the bill.
“Dean got involved primarily because he had a number of amendments, some relating to Nevada,” Hoeven said. “So that was the genesis of his involvement and most of the focus.”
Those amendments, it appears, were heavily woven into one of the five mandates the amendment lays out as necessary benchmarks to meet before undocumented immigrants can obtain green cards.
The sweeping border security amendment as described by Corker and Hoeven, which senators were still putting the final touches on Thursday night, includes mandates for:
• a $3.2 billion high-tech border surveillance plan, involving sensors, radar and drones;
• $3 billion for building up 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border — twice what the original bill called for;
• about $25 billion to pay for another 20,000 border patrol agents, twice the number currently deployed along the border and enough to space an agent every 1,000 feet;
• a requirement that the government’s employer-verification system E-Verify be up and running; and
• an electronic entry-exit system at all international airports and seaports.
Heller had taken a particular interest in the electronic entry-exit system, offering two amendments to beef up the underlying bill’s proposal to pilot test a system for tracking visa overstays at the country’s top 10 busiest airports for international travelers.
One of Heller’s amendments would require the Department of Homeland Security to issue a detailed report within 60 days of the bill’s passage, explaining to the airports in question how such a program would be rolled out. He also offered an amendment requiring DHS to reduce the wait times at affected airports by 50 percent.
Heller was also particularly keen on ensuring that Nevada’s flagship airport, McCarran International in Las Vegas, see the benefits of these new initiatives. While McCarran does not currently rank among the top 10 U.S. airports for international travelers, the number of foreign travelers coming through has doubled in the past four years, and the state’s tourism and economic development officials are committed to see that pace of growth continue and improve.
The expansion of the entry-exit system from a pilot program to all international airports and seaports would ensure McCarran receives assistance in serving a growing audience of international visitors, an important underpinning of the state’s plan to increase its international tourist base.
Heller, who earlier this week scored a victory for Nevada by getting it added to the immigration bill’s Southern Border Security Commission, told the Sun earlier Thursday that it was “important” to him that his “other amendments were part of the bill,” and that “both of the other two amendments … are now encompassed in this new amendment.”
All conditions of the new amendment would have to be met before undocumented immigrants could be elevated from registered provisional immigrant status to permanent, green card residency. But unlike the Cornyn amendment, there would be no opportunity to hedge the distribution of those green cards on an arbitrary value judgment of whether the border was deemed secure enough to proceed once those benchmarks were met.
“It is not a results test, it is an effort test,” leading Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer said in describing why he considered the bill to be “a breakthrough.”
As of Thursday night, senators were still tinkering with final touches to the amendment.
“The amendment is ready, but we have to make sure that it’s ready,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said very late Thursday night, remarking that over 20 senators had been working around the clock to punch out the final product.
“I’ve been to a few of these rodeos and we have to make sure that the amendment that was worked on all day is going to be the one that is the final one,” he added.
Detailed language identifying the component parts of the amendment, and who worked to piece them together, is expected on Friday.