CHN: Immigration Bill Imminent in the Senate
The work of drafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill is completed in the Senate. The key drafters, the so-called “Gang of Eight” (Republicans Marco Rubio (FL), John McCain, Jeff Flake (AZ), and Lindsey Graham (SC) and Democrats Charles Schumer (NY), Robert Menendez (NJ), Michael Bennet (CO), and Richard Durbin (IL)) are poised to introduce legislation. The momentum to address the country’s broken immigration system continues to build on the President’s call for immigration reform in his State of the Union Address in January, the growing sense among Republicans that addressing immigration is critical to their electoral strategy, and polls showing bi-partisan support among Americans including those in the small business community for comprehensive reform that includes an earned path to citizenship. Much is at stake for people who have waited years to be reunited with family members in the United States, businesses who hire high- and low-skilled workers, agribusinesses that count on seasonal foreign workers, and undocumented immigrants now in the United States.
There are currently 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the country, down from the pre-recession peak of 12 million in 2007. About 63 percent of them have been in the United States for 10 or more years. Often these immigrants are part of families that include both documented and undocumented members, many of which have at least one U.S.-born child.
Contrary to common myth, immigrants do not take jobs from American workers and granting them legal status would actually create jobs. Legalizing the approximately 11 million who currently lack documentation would strengthen the economy by creating jobs and increasing tax revenues. The Center for American Progress estimates that immigration reform that includes legalizing the 11 million undocumented would add $1.5 trillion to the gross domestic product over 10 years.
The bi-partisan group of Senators has agreed to a framework that includes a path to citizenship for many of the undocumented (a 10-year path from a probationary period to a green card and at least 3 more years to citizenship), changes in the criteria for new immigrants, an effective employment verification system, and an improved process for admitting future immigrant workers. It is understood that the path to citizenship will include passing a background check, learning English and paying fines and taxes, but important questions remain about the legislation. Will payment of taxes require looking back at a work history that might include decades for which documentation is not possible, or as advocates support, will paying taxes start from the beginning of the probationary period? Will the legislation call for mandatory participation by employers in a sometimes inaccurate E-Verify system to check an employee’s work authorization status? Resolving the issues around who will receive new visas has proven to be among the most difficult for legislation drafters.
There are multiple visa programs which provide avenues for individuals to be admitted legally into the United States. The largest is the family reunification program. Two-thirds of the green cards are currently issued under that program. Backlogs in the program mean that some families wait for more than two decades. The new legislation is expected both to address the backlog and to apportion a smaller percentage of green cards in the family reunification program. Advocates would be concerned about a reduction in those visas to make room for more high-skilled worker slots. Other visa programs provide annual quotas for people from specific countries or with specialized work skills.
Labor and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have agreed on a new “W” visa program for lower-skilled workers, setting parameters for the minimum (20,000) and maximum (200,000) number of new guest workers each year. The agreement would require employers to pay their workers either the prevailing wage or the typical U.S. citizen’s wage – depending on which is higher. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) led negotiations between the farm workers’ union and the agriculture industry over the number of agriculture workers and their wages. The number of farmworkers is expected to increase, and the legislation is expected to provide them with an expedited path to citizenship. Advocates are concerned that those workers are particularly vulnerable to being exploited and need protection.
Individual Senators are advocating including more visas for people from countries that are represented among their constituencies. It is expected that the legislation will also include green cards for foreign students who graduate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
The new legislation will likely include a set of goals to reduce illegal crossings on the U.S. southern border and call for a system to monitor entry and exit from airports and seaports. Although the southern border is already more secured than the benchmarks called for in the failed 2007 immigration reform bill, the Department of Homeland Security will reportedly be charged with planning and implementing strategies to further strengthen enforcement. Over 21,000 agents and 1,200 National Guard troops are now stationed along the border. A fence has already been built along 651 miles of the 2,000 mile border between the United States and Mexico, and extensive surveillance and radar systems have been installed. Border crossings are at a 40-year low and net illegal immigration is zero. A report from the Migration Policy Institute reveals that the United States spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2012 alone and a total of $187 billion since 1986.
The Senate bill will also require businesses to use the E-Verify system run by the Department of Homeland Security to affirm that a potential employee has the documentation to work in the United States. This internet-based system has produced inaccuracies estimated to affect tens of thousands of workers in the most recent year. It will be important to improve the E-Verify system and that there be a process for those non-confirmed through the system to correct inaccuracies.
Access to the Safety Net
In an attempt to keep the first 10-year cost of an immigration bill low, there will likely be no changes in immigrant eligibility for key federal means-tested programs. Currently even adults who become lawful permanent residents (i.e. receive green cards) are not eligible for SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, TANF or SSI until after a 5-year waiting period. However, there are high costs in denying immigrants health coverage. People without health coverage can end up costing the system more because they access care when there is an emergency. Children of undocumented immigrants are also denied access to these programs. They are eligible for nutrition programs like school lunches and WIC. (See National Immigration Law Center guide to immigrant eligibility for Affordable Care Act subsidies and key federal means tested programs.)
Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has scheduled immigration hearings for April 19 and 22, and plans to mark up the Senate bill in Committee in early May. Action is expected on the Senate floor this summer.
There is also a bi-partisan group of House members negotiating on immigration reform (Republicans Sam Johnson (TX), John Carter (TX), Mario Diaz-Balart (FL), and Raul Labrador (ID) and Democrats Xavier Becerra (CA), Zoe Lofgren (CA), and John Yarmuth (KY)). House negotiators have reportedly come to agreement on a 15-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the country – a 5-year probationary period followed by 5 years to learn English, pay fines and back taxes, after which they can receive a visa. It would then take another 5 years to gain citizenship. House Republican negotiators have rejected the deal made between labor and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on low-skilled workers that is expected to be in the Senate bill, thinking that it is too favorable to workers. They have indicated that they may move immigration legislation in pieces instead of in a comprehensive bill as the Senate has, an approach rejected by House Democratic leadership.
The polls show that by a margin of 3-1, the American public supports immigration reform, and by a margin of 2-1they support a path to citizenship. The 11million undocumented immigrants anxiously await the legislation, hoping it will reflect values of fairness and justice and encourage them to emerge without fear from the shadows.