CHN: Immigration Bill Passes Senate Judiciary Committee
On May 21, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) by a vote of 13-5. All Committee Democrats [Leahy (VT), Feinstein (CA), Schumer (NY), Durbin IL), Whitehouse (RI), Klobuchar (MN), Franken (MN), Coons (DE), Blumenthal (CT), Hirono (HI)], and three Republicans [Hatch (UT), Graham (SC) and Flake (FL)] voted in favor of the bill. Five Republicans [Grassley (IA), Sessions (AL), Cornyn (TX), Lee (UT) and Cruz (TX)] were opposed. The vote followed 5 days and nearly 30 hours of debate and consideration of 212 amendments, of which 141 were adopted. Some of the 300 amendments originally submitted were withdrawn or will be voted on when the bill comes to the Senate floor. S. 744 came out of committee largely intact, maintaining the 13-year path to citizenship, investments in border enforcement, and new categories of work visas. (For more background regarding the Senate bill see the April 30 Human Needs Report.)
A range of amendments were approved in the Judiciary Committee. A sampling of those amendments include: one motivated by the Boston bombing that would terminate the asylum or refugee status of anyone who returns to his or her home country; in response to a 9/11 Commission recommendation, the Committee approved an amendment requiring the Department of Transportation to expand the use of a biometric tracking system (using fingerprinting, facial imaging and other data) at U.S. airports with a high volume of international travel; an amendment that requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct regular audits to ensure that registered provisional immigrants (RPI) are not receiving federal means-tested public benefits; and an amendment to permit immigrants who are victims of family violence to be eligible to receive certain public and assisted housing. Among the amendments that failed were: one that requires payment of back taxes as of the date of entry into the United States as a prerequisite to apply for RPI status; an amendment that would allocate a certain percentage of visas for family-sponsored immigrants to address separations that result in extreme hardship; one that denies immigrants with RPI status eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit; and an amendment to shorten to 18 months the deadline by which companies must be ready to utilize the E-Verify system which confirms that employees are eligible to work (For the full list of amendments considered see the report on the Judiciary Committee website.) Republicans have announced that they will offer amendments when S. 744 comes to the floor to strengthen border security even more and will again offer some of the amendments that were defeated in the Committee related to benefits for immigrants.
In an attempt to expand Republican support for S. 744 in the Judiciary Committee beyond Senators Graham and Flake (Gang of 8 bill co-sponsors) Democrats have been working with Senator Hatch to resolve his concerns about requirements on companies who hire high-skilled workers in the H-1B visa program. Hatch has become an advocate for tech companies who hire many foreign workers. Senator Schumer worked out a deal with Hatch to loosen the requirements on companies with fewer than 15 percent of its high-skilled workers from foreign countries to first seek potential U.S. employees, and to raise the minimum annual number of H-1B visas from 110,000 to 115,000 (the current minimum cap is 65,000; the maximum remains 180,000). This was one of the bigger changes in the bill and was opposed by the AFL-CIO, which had carefully worked out the H-1B provision in the bill with the Chamber of Commerce before S. 744 was introduced. Many of the Democrats were uncomfortable with the agreement but voted ‘yes.’ This agreement, however, was not enough to clinch his support for the final bill; Hatch said that his support will further depend on amendments related to tax and health benefits that he will offer when the bill comes to the floor. He also said that he would seek to attach an unrelated amendment to the bill disallowing waiver authority within the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program that had previously been announced by the Administration. Deference to Hatch is based on the belief by some Democrats that if he supports the final bill, other Republicans will follow his lead.
Just before the Committee took its vote on passage of the bill, Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Leahy (D-VT) expressed his deep concern that the bill does not provide equal access to visas for LGBT families. He was ready with an amendment to provide that access, but did not offer it because Republicans in the Gang of 8 have said inclusion of that provision would end their support for the bill. The President has also encouraged Democrats not to offer amendments that would kill the bill.
On May 23, the House bi-partisan group negotiating immigration reform legislation [Republicans Sam Johnson (TX), John Carter (TX), Mario Diaz-Balart (FL), and Raul Labrador (ID) and Democrats Xavier Becerra (CA), Luis Gutierrez (IL), Zoe Lofgren (CA), and John Yarmuth (KY)] announced for the second time that they’d come to agreement on a framework for a bill. The announcement a week earlier fell apart on the issue of health care. Current law does not allow immigrants access to means-tested programs including Medicaid, but according to federal law hospitals must serve those who come to emergency rooms. Republicans wanted to require immigrants to buy health care coverage, which would likely be unaffordable to most, or risk deportation. Democrats found that provision unacceptable. Reportedly, negotiators have agreed that immigrants can receive emergency Medicaid services without being deported but will have to pay the bill. They may also buy into the Affordable Care Act exchanges but will not be eligible to receive subsidies. The House agreement has not yet been written into legislative language but the bill will purportedly include a 15-year path to citizenship, much stricter border enforcement than the Senate bill, and a trigger that would require that if the E-Verify system is not up and running in 5 years all immigrants would have to revert to the status they now have. The path to citizenship in the House bill will undoubtedly prove much more onerous for immigrants to navigate.
S. 744 is scheduled to go to the floor of the Senate the week of June 10th, after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) determines the bill’s cost. Bill architects claim that it will be deficit-neutral. CBO has agreed that it makes sense to use dynamic scoring when analyzing the cost. This will allow for consideration of the positive benefits to the economy of bringing immigrant workers out of the shadows and the new tax revenues that will be generated, as well as the costs associated with enhanced border enforcement, the E-Verify system, and other provisions. The bill will likely be on the Senate floor for 3 weeks. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he will urge his caucus not to use parliamentary procedures to block the bill from coming to the floor. House drafters hope to have their bill ready for committee consideration in early June.
There is still a long road ahead. Some Members of Congress unequivocally oppose giving immigrants a path to citizenship. Some anti-immigration reform organizations have expressed outright opposition to the Senate bill. Among those opposed are the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council and the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, the unions representing immigration and deportation agents that together represent 20,000 Department of Homeland Security employees charged with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws. Their complaints include concern that they were not consulted during the development of the Senate bill, that their officers are pressured to rubber stamp applications, that the systems within their agencies are insurmountably bureaucratic, and that DHS is already using its discretion to waive fees of applicants under the deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) program and will likely replicate the practice for immigrants under S. 744. See letter written by the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council President Kenneth Palinkas.