By Paul C. Barton Gannett Washington Bureau
Even though Tennessee's senators insist otherwise, critics say the immigration reform legislation they helped pass amounts to amnesty for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
They also say many of the border-security provisions Republican Sen. Bob Corker wrote into the bill - and fellow Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander cosponsored - will likely never be realized because of either cost or impracticality.
The arguments show how debate over immigration reform continues to be fierce, even after Senate passage last week of a more than 1,000-page bill, with Corker as a central figure in the effort.
His amendment calling for $46 billion to beef-up border security was seen as key in attracting enough Republican votes for passage of the measure. Corker and Alexander were two of only 14 Republican votes for the bill, which passed 68-32.
Meanwhile, what kind of immigration reform legislation the House may consider remains a mystery, though Speaker John Boehner has ruled out a vote on the Senate bill.
It's the Senate bill that has Washington groups that favor more restrictive immigration still fuming. They say large corporations seeking more labor, especially through expanded visa programs, influenced the Tennessee senators.
But Corker said in an interview, "I don't think pressure from business was a driving force."
Charges it was an "amnesty bill" persist, however.
"It is clearly amnesty," said Robert Rector, a specialist on domestic issues for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called Corker pivotal in passing "the worst immigration legislation this nation has ever seen. They tossed taxpayers and the American worker under the bus."
Such critics point to a provision that gives undocumented immigrants the chance to stay in the United States by applying for a newly created status - "registered provisional immigrant" or RPI.
To attain it, immigrants must pass a criminal background check, pay a $500 fine and application-processing fees. They also have to start paying taxes. RPI status can be renewed every six years through the same steps.
While RPI status might not be full citizenship, it will be good enough to attract many, some say.
"They can do everything but vote and sit on a jury," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Corker counters that RPI status brings the undocumented out of the shadows while denying them access to means-tested federal benefits such as food stamps.
"It's a win for our country, and it's the moral thing to do," Corker said.
And Alexander said: "The bill would end perpetual amnesty for 11 million people who are illegally here. It does what we usually do with people who break the law: it identifies them, fines them, assesses penalties and requires them to work."
Under the bill, Corker said, those with RPI status must wait at least 10 years to even think about applying for a green card - allowing for receipt of federal benefits - and later for citizenship.
And the wait will be even longer, he said, if measures to intensify border security are not operational by then. Those include a system enabling all employers to verify the status of prospective hires, an electronic sentry system at ports of entry, a doubling of border patrol officers to almost 40,000, a doubling of southwest border fencing to about 700 miles, plus investments in helicopters and various sensing instruments to detect immigrant traffic.
Alexander added: "They also have to go to the back of the line behind anyone applying for a green card who came through the normal legal processes. Any application for citizenship comes after that."
Corker said there was little choice but to create the RPI category.
"Not a single person offered an amendment to round up 11 million people and send them out of the country," he said of the Senate debate.
But Rector, the Heritage Foundation expert, said the bill still amounts to amnesty first and border protection second.
"This is exactly what they promised us in 1986 (the last amnesty bill)," he said.
Rector said a better and much cheaper means of controlling undocumented immigrants would be to enforce existing laws against hiring them.
"You don't need to round them up," he said. "If you take away their ability to work, they just go home."
Meanwhile, he and other critics of the Senate bill say many of the border-security provisions will never be realized because of cost or because they are not feasible.
For starters, Krikorian said it's not easy to recruit border patrol officers because of the skills and aptitude they must have.
Of adding 20,000, he said: "They might as well have said a million. It's that level of unreality."
Krikorian said Corker's language also goes overboard in mandating specific types of surveillance technology to be used in different border areas, potentially tying the hands of the Department of Homeland Security.
Corker disagreed, saying the bill gives the department discretion to switch to better technologies if available.
And the equipment called for, the senator said, comes from Customs and Border Patrol suggestions. "They said, 'Here are the technologies we need to secure the border,'" said Todd Womack, Corker's chief of staff.
But that hasn't silenced critics.
Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said "the hyper-specific nature of the shopping list represents micromanagement of border security that will inevitably lead to waste as the needs on the ground change."
In getting the bill through the Senate, Ellis said, Corker regarded more personnel, fencing and equipment as "political necessities rather than practical needs."
Further, several Government Accountability Office reports in recent years have questioned whether the Border Patrol has adequately evaluated the effectiveness of border fencing and other measures. To fence the entire U.S.-Mexican border would cost $22.4 billion, according to government estimates.
Rector said as years go by Congress will siphon border-security funds to competing programs.
"They will have to fight for it," he said of the security funds.