CHN: Immigration Passes The Senate – Final Outcome Unclear
On May 25, after two weeks of intense floor debate, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill (S. 2611) by a vote of 62-36. The bill creates a path to citizenship for approximately 8 to 8.5 million of the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants who are now in the U.S. It contains provisions to speed the family unification process among immigrant families; it significantly increases the number of employment-based visas; and it calls for a new temporary worker program with worker protections which would allow 200,000 persons to come legally each year to do jobs that are not filled by U.S. workers.
The bill also sets hurdles on the path to legalization and citizenship beginning with the risks associated with undocumented immigrants disclosing themselves. The financial costs associated with becoming a citizen are very high for low-wage workers. The bill calls for a $2000 fine for being undocumented in the country, a $750 fee to help pay for health and education services for non-citizens, a $500 fee to help fund immigration enforcement activities and an undetermined fee related to filing for citizenship. The potential for the names of immigrants who have not committed a criminal act to be placed in the National Crime Information Center database is great, as are concerns about individuals receiving due process when issues arise.
The bill carries with it huge enforcement challenges. For example, a central provision in the bill includes setting up a 3-tier system for treating undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. that will be difficult to monitor and enforce. Those here more than five years could be put on the path to citizenship. Those here two to five years would have to leave briefly and obtain guest worker visas and then start working toward legal status. Anyone here less than two years would be subject to deportation.
During the course of the debate dozens of amendments were considered. A significant number of those were benefits-related. Federal public benefits are not generally available to immigrants who are not “qualified,” and legalization and guest worker status do not automatically result in eligibility for benefits. An amendment offered by Senator Ensign (R-NV) was defeated that would have barred immigrants currently in the country from claiming Social Security credits for work done in years before they are assigned a valid Social Security number. Another Ensign amendment passed that would bar immigrants from collecting any tax refunds or filing for the Earned Income Tax Credit for tax years prior to 2006 even though immigrants are required to pay back taxes on earnings prior to that date.
The House immigration bill, H.R. 4437, passed in December. It is less comprehensive than the Senate bill and focuses almost entirely on border security and enforcement. It would treat anyone in the country without a valid visa as a felon and severely punish those caught helping them. It does not provide for a guest worker program or a path to citizenship.
The vastly different approaches in the bills as well as wide divisions within each of the political parties will make coming to a conference agreement on a bill very difficult. This week House Speaker Hastert said he wanted to “take a long look” at the Senate legislation before naming House conferees, which may signal that passing a final bill will not occur soon. In the meantime the immigration debate is playing out in local, state, and national political primary races and will likely influence elections in the fall.
For a comprehensive summary of the Senate immigration bill see the National Immigration Forum’s website: http://www.immigrationforum.org.