The United States Senate is suddenly relevant again after a bipartisan effort delivered a comprehensive immigration bill that deals with visa reform, border security and that creates a pathway to citizenship for the millions in this country not here legally.

But with the bill headed to the House, a big dose of real leadership will be needed once again as the legislation is already facing criticism from both parties.

The Senate’s bill is not perfect. Far from it. Although senators, especially the Gang of Eight coalition that got the ball rolling, deserve credit for finally confronting one of our country’s steepest challenges, the bill needs a lot of help before it will be ready for the president’s signature.

The good

Let’s not lose sight of the historic nature of this bill’s passage. For those of us who recall the vitriolic immigration debates of 2006 and 2007, the Senate showed that it is not completely paralyzed by partisan bickering.

For many of the Republicans who voted for this bill, this was not an easy vote. But rising stars like Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) set aside the usual carping from a vocal minority and did the right thing by taking on an issue that the American people believe needs fixing now.

Sessions has long been an immigration hardliner, but he’s living in his own political world, one frozen in time, where he’s (...) apparently willing to allow the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in our country to live in a state of what Sen. Rubio rightly calls, “de-facto amnesty.”

- Nelson Balido

And while I’m not in the camp that says the Republican Party cannot survive without an immigration reform bill, this bill does present an opportunity to engage Hispanic voters on an important issue in a positive way. Republicans would be wise to take a page from George W. Bush, a strong immigration reform supporter who won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in his last presidential election. You win elections by plowing new ground, not by relying on the same old shrinking base.

The bad

The bill contains an amendment by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that was aimed at placating those senators who claimed the underlying bill was too soft on border security. The result is the most over-the-top effort to attract votes you’re ever likely to see. It’s like the equivalent of wanting a burglar alarm for your house and the salesman bringing you the U.S. Marine Corps.

The amendment requires an additional 20,000 Border Patrol Agents, bringing the agency to approximately 40,000 agents total, and it calls for border fencing to be extended to 700 miles. If you’re looking for a new career option, consider becoming a contractor in the fencing business, because Uncle Sam might be in the market soon. I would rather see technology play a larger role, especially modernizing our communications through advanced radios which are in great need for our border law enforcers and the use of force multipliers such as mobile scope trucks and stationary towers such as the ones currently used in parts of Arizona where we have seen the illegal penetrations fall to negligible numbers.

As someone who has gone along on his share of ride-alongs with the Border Patrol and who has traveled to remote and rugged outposts like Cochise County, Arizona and traveled along the Texas-Mexico border and visited with private landowners there, I would urge the House of Representatives to find a better way to spend that fencing money.

There might be areas where new and improved barriers are needed, but walling off our country’s southern border is neither practical, nor cost-effective, nor smart. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of the amendment, “We’ll be the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

That’s a very expensive and foolish aspiration, Senator.

The ugly

Despite Corker-Hoeven’s inclusion in the bill, there were still some senators who claimed that they could not vote for the bill over security concerns.

Some, like Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) offered up many thoughtful amendments throughout the debate in committee and on the floor. Some passed, some did not. But throughout the entire process, the Senate minority party’s number two official was doing his best to improve the bill.

Other senators, though, were just looking to score cheap political points on the backs of a contentious issue.

Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama offered dozens of amendments, none designed to keep the conversation moving in a productive way, but rather to gut the entire bill.

Sessions has long been an immigration hardliner, but he’s living in his own political world, one frozen in time, where he’s oblivious not only to a changing America, a business community crying for reform of our byzantine visa system and a Republican Party facing some major demographic challenges, but where he’s apparently willing to allow the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in our country to live in a state of what Sen. Rubio rightly calls, “de-facto amnesty.”

Time is short for an immigration bill to make it into law. We have less than six months before candidates begin filing for office for the 2014 election cycle. If we don’t have a plan passed through both chambers by then, it will be too late.

We’ve made tremendous progress. Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by.

Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.  Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido

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