Blumenthal hoping to make his mark in immigration debate

Washington  — U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal is leveraging his seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee to plunge headlong into the fractious debate in Congress on immigration.

Blumenthal, a Democrat, said he’s motivated to become a player in Congress’ attempt to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws because “the current system is, in fact, badly broken.”

He has introduced 18 amendments to the immigration bill under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Most would  expand the rights of the nation’s immigrants and further the top concerns of immigration advocates. One would speed the citizenship process for undocumented children and another would move up the bill’s cutoff date for eligibility for legalization and citizenship.

Under the proposed immigration bill, only those who could prove they were in the country before Dec. 31, 2011, would be eligible for a so-called “pathway to citizenship.”

Calling the bill’s cutoff date “completely arbitrary,” Blumenthal hopes to change the deadline to April 17 of this year, the day the immigration bill was filed in the Senate.

“That’s based on a rational date,” he said.

Changing the bill’s deadline would also add about 400,000 people to the millions that would be eligible to apply for lawful residence in the United States after paying a fee and any back taxes that might be owed.

Ana Maria Rivera, an attorney with a New Haven-based immigrant rights group, the Junta for Progressive Action, said she is counting on Blumenthal to play defense as the Judiciary Committee considers hundreds of amendments to the 840-page immigration bill in the coming weeks.

“We know while Senator Blumenthal is introducing good amendments, other senators are introducing bad amendments,” Rivera said.

Two Blumenthal amendments were adopted last week. One would improve federal information on human trafficking and another would bar the Justice Department from reimbursing state and local law enforcement agencies for costs incurred if they break the law in the process of detaining an undocumented immigrant.

The fate of the rest of Blumenthal’s amendments, however, is unclear.

On Tuesday, the judiciary panel will consider another one.  It would allow visitors to the United States on tourist visas to participate in short-term college courses that last no more than 90 days.

Few of the more than 300 amendments filed last week by Blumenthal and his fellow Judiciary Committee colleagues will be approved without bipartisan support.

Still pending is Blumenthal’s “Little Dreamer” amendment, which would give undocumented children under 18 a quicker road to citizenship than other immigrants, the same advantage that the  “Dream Act” that’s incorporated in the immigration bill would give older children.

“The little dreamers have grown up here and should have the same path,” Blumenthal said.

Other Blumenthal amendments would crack down on the use of solitary confinement at detention centers, protect immigrant whistleblowers and limit federal immigration raids on hospitals, schools and places of worship.

Blumenthal is optimistic that Congress will approve a wide-ranging immigration bill this year. “I’m encouraged and heartened by the progress we’ve made,” he said.

But any Senate-approved bill must be considered by the GOP-led House, where prospects of reform are dimmer.

House leaders say they want to consider immigration reform measures in a piecemeal fashion.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., is among some immigration reform advocates in the House who fear the issue will die in House committees.

“They are going to kill it by a thousand little cuts,” Grijalva said.