NRCA's director of federal affairs explains why the immigration bill failed in the Senate

Immigration bill fails in the Senate

by Krista Reisdorf

On Thursday, June 28, the Senate's immigration bill failed to receive the votes it needed to end debate. The bill's failure means the death of legislation that would have employed tough border security and a way to offer citizenship to some of the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S.

Craig Silvertooth, NRCA's director of federal affairs, has been a representative for NRCA during the immigration debate in Washington, D.C., as NRCA has shown its support for immigration reform legislation.

A delicate compromise

Silvertooth believes the main reason for the bill's failure was grassroots pressure.

"Talk radio and conservative activists on the Web were able to label the bill as an amnesty bill, and that gained traction," Silvertooth says. "A lot of people called in and wrote; these people weren't necessarily representative of the polls or general population, but senators were scared and decided not to vote to end debate."

It didn't help that the bill was such a delicate compromise between political parties, Silvertooth says. If the bill had been made tougher to appease Republicans, Democrat votes would have been lost.

"We were unhappy with the guest-worker terms," Silvertooth says. "It originally was 400,000 and was cut to 200,000. But if we had gotten that restored, we would have lost Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and a lot of other Democrats."

Other senators did what they could to derail the legislation. According to Silvertooth, several of the more vocal opponents of the bill "were not honest brokers" and actively tried to kill the bill by voting for amendments they knew would help the bill fail.

It all came down to the vote. Sixty votes are needed to pass a cloture vote, which is a vote to end debate and move to an up-or-down vote on a bill, which requires only 50 votes.

"The cloture vote got up to 58—two votes short—but we couldn't get anyone else to flip," Silvertooth says. "Senators didn't want to be BTUed, which is taking a really tough vote for no reason. If the House didn't do anything with the bill, the senators would have been on record as voting for the bill. So a lot of senators' votes switched to 'no' on cloture when it was clear 60 was unattainable, and the vote count fell to 46."

Silvertooth says even Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who was a big supporter of the bill, voted "yes" and changed his vote at the last minute.

"It demonstrates how afraid these senators were about the grassroots pressure they were getting," he says.

Silvertooth admits not much could have been done to change the effects of this grassroots pressure. However, educating the public could have helped.

"I think we needed a better public campaign," he says. "Impressing upon the public just how broken the system is might have been helpful to discredit the other side. We have good reasons and answers for all the complaints lodged against the bill, but it ultimately came down to grassroots."

Although those who wanted to kill the immigration bill are pleased with the outcome, the problem is that now nothing has been done.

"So they've ensured that we have no new border security, no legalization measures, no way to deal with labor shortages and no reform law to deal with backlogs," Silvertooth says. "It really is the amnesty charge that sunk us. But it would require a multimillion dollar communications campaign to address that."

What to expect

According to Silvertooth's prognosis, the immigration issue will only become more chaotic.

"Illegal immigrants will continue to come," he says. "There will be a huge surge of applicants for citizenship; immigrants want to lock down their citizenship because they see the Congress as unwelcoming."

In addition, more states will be taking matters into their own hands and establishing immigration laws. For example, in Hazelton, Pa., you can't rent property to illegal immigrants, so you have to perform extensive background checks. In Arizona, your business license could be revoked if you employ illegal immigrants.

"The conservative right has been effective at putting grassroots pressure on state and local officials," Silvertooth says. "They say immigrants are coming here for social services. No one is coming across the southern border for affordable health care—they are coming for jobs."

Although some states are reacting to this pressure and employing punitive measures, there are certain cities, such as Virginia Beach, Va., that are establishing themselves as "sanctuary cities," which have become safe havens for immigrants.

"It is happening in cities where they have extremely liberal mayors who prohibit enforcement of immigration laws in their jurisdiction," Silvertooth says.

So with the failure of the immigration bill, roofing contractors can expect more enforcement at the state and local level. Silvertooth says they also can expect new punitive laws and enhanced scrutiny from the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; will read more about raids on construction companies; and will see more of what they see now—fake documents.

Moving forward

It seems Washington, D.C., and the general public need a break from the immigration issue. But they most likely won't have the opportunity to address the issue in 2008 because the U.S. will be in the midst of a presidential election. So the immigration issue may not be revived on Capitol Hill until at least 2009.

However, Silvertooth says NRCA will not be taking a break from the immigration issue.

"NRCA will definitely continue on this issue with the help of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition," he says. "We will try to reassess our communications process, which is the most important aspect. We are too heavily invested to abandon the issue at this point."

This Web exclusive information is a supplement to Capitol Hill.