leahyYesterday was day 3 of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s mark-up on S. 744, the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill. While it wasn’t as exciting as the first two days—no dramatic speeches or vocal disagreement—several important votes were taken to modify the mandatory E-verify program, adding and subtracting protections, safeguards, and reporting requirements. This lack of drama was a good thing, however, because there was far less posturing and far more legislating going on.

There were a few reasons for the more deliberative tone of Thursday’s hearing. First, Senator Leahy closed off debate on Title IV—the part of the bill dealing with future immigration flows of non-immigrant workers—early in the day. There was only a little discussion about the new W worker visa program, something that has the support of both labor and business, and votes on many amendments to change the high tech components of the bill were postponed to give both sides more time to negotiate a deal. Senators critical of the W program noted that they would wait to bring many of their amendments to the full Senate for consideration, thus postponing many of the fireworks for another day but also signaling they have no doubt that this bill would be heading to the floor for a vote.

Another reason for the more technical tone of the debate was the subject matter at hand. E-verify has been the subject of years of heated conversations and votes, so it might have surprised people that the tone was so civil and pragmatic this time around. There is broad consensus among lawmakers, however, that the E-verify program—despite concerns over accuracy, privacy, and civil rights—is a necessary tool for interior enforcement. The fight now stands over whether mandatory E-verify on its own is sufficient to deter illegal immigration. For many supporters of immigration reform, E-verify has been perceived as just another type of “enforcement first” tactic unless it was coupled with legalization and fixes to the way immigrant workers are admitted into the U.S. Because the E-verify program under debate now is part of a comprehensive reform plan, the broader arguments against it are beginning to melt away. What remains are serious questions about the best way to implement a program that protects everyone’s interests. That is what the senators largely focused on yesterday.

But the importance of having a debate on the substance of the issue—what is the capacity to handle millions of employers’ inquiries, how quickly can the government build the system, how do you protect against errors and potential job losses if an error is made, how do you protect privacy and Social Security numbers—these are the kinds of questions we want lawmakers to be talking about. The big news on E-Verify really is that there was enough consensus to actually legislate—something that has become rare in Congress these days.

Even more striking was how Senator Grassley repeatedly talked about the inevitability of immigration reform.  Although he consistently argued for tougher enforcement mechanisms throughout the bill, he said more than once “when this bill becomes law.” Not “if” but “when.”  The assumption that a bill that includes both legalization and E-verify will pass is an important and dramatic development in its own quiet way.

That’s not to say that the next week of mark-up—possibly four full days and into the night, which is a huge time commitment for 18 senators to make—will be easy. The upcoming debates on the remainder of Title III will be on tough issues that would further criminalize and penalize immigrants.  There will also be efforts to eliminate many of the important due process protections added to the law in Title III.  After that, Title II, which encompasses both legalization and changes to legal immigration, including family issues and a new merit-based point system, will be tough.

If we are lucky, however, the civility and substantive discussion will continue. There is no smooth sailing on immigration, and despite Senator Grassley’s encouraging words, no one should take passage of a bill for granted. But it is OK to take a moment to realize that immigration policy is finally getting its day in Congress. Less drama and more substance is something everyone can agree is a strong step in the right direction.

Picture Courtesy of C-Span.