CHN: Comprehensive Immigration Reform Passes the Senate, Now It’s the House’s Turn
On June 27, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744), with a bi-partisan 68 – 32 vote. All 52 Democrats, both Independents and 14 Republicans [Alexander (TN), Ayotte (NH), Chiesa (NJ), Collins (ME), Corker (TN), Flake (AZ), Graham (SC), Hatch (UT), Heller (NV), Hoeven (ND), Kirk (IL), McCain (AZ), Murkowski (AK), and Rubio (FL)] voted for passage.
Provisions in this historic legislation include a minimum 13-year path to citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants currently without lawful status, an expedited 5-year path for DREAMers brought to the United States before age 16 and an accelerated path for some agriculture workers. The bill also establishes new categories of visas, provides access to some federal student loans for DREAMers and to federal housing assistance for qualified survivors of domestic violence, incorporates worker protections including due process for those misclassified under the electronic employment eligibility verification (E-Verify) system and implements training for Border Patrol agents. Advocates successfully fought off attempts to include in the bill provisions to deny low-income tax credits to immigrants currently eligible to claim them.
While the Coalition on Human Needs, many key civil rights, labor, faith, and other groups supported passage of S. 744, there is realization that it is far from a perfect bill. The path to citizenship laid out in S. 744 will not be easy. Many families will find the fines and penalties onerous, and in some cases, insurmountable. Once they reach registered provisional immigrant (RPI) status, all immigrants will be paying taxes to help support a safety net system for which they will not be eligible until they attain citizenship years later. Nor will they be eligible to receive health insurance premium subsidies through the new health care law, putting them at risk of harmful health consequences. Some immigrants who have already been paying taxes will be denied Social Security credit for the quarters of coverage earned between 2004 and 2014 before getting on the road to citizenship, forcing them to work an additional decade to earn back those credits. Potential for employer abuse or errors in the E-Verify system and exploitation of workers still exists. S. 744 does not address state and local laws and policies that have resulted in profiling. (For more details and analysis of S. 744 see the National Immigration Law Center website.)
It became evident when the Senate began the 3-week floor debate on S. 744 that in order to garner enough support from Republicans even more stringent border security provisions would need to be incorporated. This demand seemed to ignore the realities that since 2004 the number of Border Patrol agents have more than doubled to over 21,000; that the number of undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the United States from the southern border is at a 40-year low; and that the base bill already required that the Department of Homeland Security hire 3,500 more agents by the end of 2013, authorized the National Guard to construct more fencing, and increased mobile surveillance.
Ultimately, the Senate agreed to an amendment sponsored by Senators Corker (R-TN) and Hoeven (R-ND). The so-called ‘border surge’ provisions call for 20,000 more border agents, hundreds of miles of additional fencing, more surveillance equipment including additional aerial drones, and biometric tracking systems at all international ports and airports to detect people who have overstayed visas. The amendment authorizes the Border Patrol to search without warrant 100 miles from the southern border, compared to 25 miles on the northern border, and ignores the pleas of many local authorities along the border who have developed positive relationships with their neighbors in Mexico. The cost of border enforcement in the bill is $46 billion. There is bi-partisan sentiment that the expenditure is unwarranted. Senator Leahy (D-VT) said the amendment “reads like a Christmas wish list for Halliburton, the military contractor likely to sell equipment or services to carry out the enforcement “surge.” Senator Collins (R-ME) said, “This unprecedented surge is excessive, wasteful, and would be enormously expensive.” Even amendment sponsor Corker commented that the new border provisions are “almost overkill.” The additional $30 billion expenditure in the Corker-Hoeven amendment was viewed as more plausible after the Congressional Budget Office released a report on June 18, stating that enactment of S. 744 would decrease the federal deficit by net savings of $175 billion over the first 10 years of enactment and by $700 billion in the second decade, from increased economic activity and tax payments by immigrants with legal status. That happy outcome made it possible to pay the cost of the Corker-Hoeven amendment. The only member who voted for the amendment but did not vote for final passage of the bill was Senator Wicker (R-MS).
House: Attention now turns to the House where the bi-partisan group working on comprehensive reform has repeatedly missed self-imposed deadlines to introduce its bill. Their work has been kept secret, but it seems that they have failed to reach agreement on how to treat health care for immigrants in their initial registered provisional immigrant (RPI) status as well as finalizing other details in the bill. In the meantime, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), with the blessing of Republican leadership, is pursuing a piecemeal approach, having marked up in his Committee four separate bills within the last two weeks. None of the bills deal with a path to citizenship. H.R. 1772 would establish an E-Verify system without some of the same worker protections in S. 744. H.R. 2278 would give state and local law authorities greater power over immigration enforcement. H.R. 1773 would create a new agricultural guest worker program. H.R. 2131 would increase visas for high-skilled workers from 65,000 to 155,000 and add visas for immigrants with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. All four bills passed the Judiciary Committee on party-line votes. Democrats voiced objections to the content of the bills and to the fact that none would establish a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants.
It is unclear how the House will proceed. There are a number of options: leadership could still introduce their own comprehensive bill; combine a package of individual bills into one bill; amend the Senate bill; or simply take no action. A number of conservative Republicans clearly do not support a path to citizenship for immigrants, a position that is a non-starter for Democrats. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has repeatedly said that he will not bring a bill to the floor without the support of the majority of the Republican caucus. House Republicans have scheduled a meeting for July 10 to determine their strategy.
Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform: The Congressional Budget Office report cited earlier documents that passage of S. 744 will result in a stronger U.S. economy based on fuller participation by an estimated net increase of 10.4 million permanent residents and an increase in temporary workers. Provisions in the bill will lead to a growth in the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) of 3.3 percent by 2023 and 5.4 percent by 2033.
Advocates are hopeful that comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants who are in our country will be passed into law. For too long immigrants have been working hard in often difficult jobs to support their families while fearing deportation that would separate them from those they love. Now is the time to end this injustice.