CHN: Framework for Immigration Bill Released

On April 29 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Charles Schumer (D-NY) held a press conference during which they released a conceptual outline for a comprehensive immigration bill. The proposal, titled “Real Enforcement with Practical Alternatives for Immigration Reform” (REPAIR), is largely based on a framework originally developed by Senators Schumer and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). For months the two Senators had been meeting to hammer out the contents of an immigration overhaul bill. In March, they released an op-ed in the Washington Post outlining their ideas on what needed to be included in an immigration reform proposal (to read the op-ed, “The right way to mend immigration,” click here). The expectation was that they would soon unveil a bill that could jumpstart debate in the Senate. However, in recent weeks Senator Graham backed away from the discussions, insisting that climate change legislation which he has also been very engaged in should come up first in the Senate. With Congressional time waning and mounting pressure from House Members and advocates, Democratic Senators decided to move ahead and release a blueprint for reform with an appeal to Republican Senators to join the negotiations.
REPAIR contains a mix of promising and concerning provisions. The proposal does contain a path to legalization for the majority of the undocumented population. Undocumented immigrants living in the country from the date the bill is introduced would be eligible for an initial registration program that would grant them provisional status with work authorization and an ability to travel abroad. They would be able to adjust their status to legal residents once the current backlog for family members applying to enter the country through the current system is cleared. The bill assumes that this process will take eight years.  Eligibility for the adjustment of status will be dependent on applicants’ ability to meet certain criteria, such as passing criminal background and security checks, paying taxes and acquiring English language skills.  The proposal also incorporates the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legalization for undocumented youth who came to this country as children.

As already stated REPAIR proposes clearing the backlogs in the family immigration system over eight years and would institute changes in the system to reduce the likelihood that major backlogs will develop in the future. There are also key protections for workers involved in labor disputes and stronger enforcement of standards relating to the treatment of immigrants in immigration detention centers. REPAIR also proposes creating new pathways for low- and high-skilled workers to join the labor force. It would boost the number of visas for non-seasonal, non-agricultural workers. Currently, just 5,000 of these visas are made available each year. It is believed that the lack of visas for these types of workers has been one of the driving forces in illegal immigration. In REPAIR, these visa-holders could renew the visa once or become permanent residents if they meet certain criteria. Also, high-skilled immigrants graduating from universities in the U.S. will be given the opportunity to gain permanent residency.

REPAIR places a heavy emphasis on border control and law enforcement. The proposal starts with a set of triggers that must be met prior to the adjustment of status to permanent residence for undocumented immigrants. The triggers include an increase in Customs and Border Patrol officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, modernized or expanded technology and infrastructure at the border, and increased immigration court resources. There are also other provisions besides the triggers calling for greater resources for enforcement at the border and ports of entry. One of the aspects of the proposal most troubling to immigrant advocates and some employers is a new employment verification system that involves a Social Security card with a biometric identifier. The fear is that this untested biometric card will replicate existing problems with current employment verification programs that have led to incorrect classification of workers as ineligible to work. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has prepared a helpful summary of REPAIR.

The window of opportunity for Congressional action this year on immigration reform is closing fast. Advocates continue to urge the Administration and Congress to make a serious push for reform. They point to a new law enacted in Arizona as another case in point for the urgent need for federal action on the issue. Recently, the Governor of Arizona signed into law a controversial bill, S.B. 1070, that gives police officers authority to stop, question, detain, and arrest people on a “reasonable suspicion” of being undocumented. Many civil rights groups, legal experts, elected officials and police chiefs have denounced the law as extreme, discriminatory, and unconstitutional.  Legal suits will be mounted to challenge S.B. 1070.