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On Immigration, a Hawkeye in No Hurry

2 minute read
Alex Altman

If the push for immigration reform falters this year, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley may bear some of the blame. The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee filed 77 amendments to the bill, more than one-quarter of the total offered by the 18-member panel.

To Grassley, the compromise worked out by a group of eight Republicans and Democrats last winter is too lenient toward undocumented immigrants and too weak on border security. “No one can dispute,” he declared, “that this bill is legalization first, enforcement later.”

Grassley pledged an “arduous” review of the measure, and so far he has delivered. He has nudged its provisions to the right in committee, beefing up its requirements for border security and congressional oversight. His tenacious criticism, suggests immigration-reform advocate Frank Sharry, also advances the strategy of the bill’s opponents, which has been to slow the process to allow a backlash from the grassroots to build.

But to Grassley, an unhurried pace could also prevent a repeat of the 1986 immigration bill, which promised to fix a broken system and wound up giving amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants and luring millions more. Grassley voted for the measure as a freshman Senator and says he regrets it as a mistake. “We screwed up,” he said this month. “The lesson learned: You reward illegality and you get more of it.”

The six-term Senator, who at 79 is looking ahead to a re-election campaign in 2016, knows illegal immigration is a signal issue for Iowa’s famously demanding conservative activists. Grassley has watched veteran GOP colleagues fall to primary challenges from the Tea Party right and has no intention of doing the same. Republican elders may argue that immigration reform is a matter of the party’s survival, but Grassley has to worry about his own.

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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com