Where Immigration Reform Stands Now

By Elena Shore, New America Media

Late last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed out of committee an imperfect immigration bill that advocates say is the best shot they have to modernize the U.S. immigration system. The bill now heads to the Senate floor, where the Senate is expected to take it up during the week of June 10.

A revised bill could be ready by the end of June.

Here’s a look at some of the amendments added to the Senate’s immigration reform bill after nearly 30 hours of debate.

Family Unity: The Senate Judiciary Committee approved amendments to protect children whose parents have been caught up in immigration actions or who lack a parent or guardian (Al Franken, D-Minn.); allow Border Patrol Officers to use discretion to keep families together at the border, and place child welfare professionals at border patrol stations (Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii).

Affordability: Another amendment proposed by Sen. Hirono allows immigrants who are legalizing their status to pay fines in installments. The $2,000 penalty associated with legalizing one’s status is unaffordable for many.

Same-Sex Couples: Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, decided to withdraw an amendment that would have allowed same-sex couples to apply for a green card through their U.S.-citizen partner, after Democrats and Republicans threatened to walk if the amendment was included.

What Remains Intact: Most of the immigration reform bill remains intact, including a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States; a ratcheting up of enforcement on the border and internally; the mandatory use of E-Verify, a federal database to check the immigration status of potential employees; and several changes to visas for future flows of immigrants.

These changes would whittle down family-based visas, eliminating the brother and sister category, and the category for adult married children over 30; eliminate the diversity visa lottery program, which is one of the main ways African immigrants enter the United States; and create a new merit-based visa system that will take into account education, work history and other factors as part of a point system.

Several key agreements were also reached between business and labor, which would create new types of visas, including a “blue card” for agricultural workers and a “W Visa” for other workers. Business and labor groups, however, have not come to an agreement on what to do about temporary workers here on an H1B visa. The ongoing tension is expected to play out on the Senate floor.

Another important element of the Senate bill that remains intact gives judges discretion when determining whether to give an individual legal status or to have him or her deported.

Key Issues to Watch in the Senate Debate

Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress spoke about the changes during a national telebriefing for ethnic media reporters organized by New America Media. She pointed to four key issues that immigration reform advocates will be watching closely as the Senate takes up the immigration reform debate.

The Border: The Senate bill already includes massive investments in enforcement and border security. Advocates will be watching for triggers that could tie enforcement to the pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, making it harder for undocumented immigrants to legalize their status.

Benefits: Advocates will also be watching to make sure those on the pathway to citizenship are able to access benefits including the child tax credit, and credits for social security down the road for the amount they worked while undocumented.

Biometrics: The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected an amendment that would have required a biometric system for non-U.S. citizens, and approved a narrower amendment sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch that would require non-citizens to submit fingerprints when they leave the country. Conservatives on the Senate floor are expected to push for increased use of biometrics to track immigrants.

Burdens: Advocates of immigration reform will also be watching the Senate debate to make sure the new rules don’t become so onerous that they render the prospect of legalization unattainable for many.

What Will the House Bill Look Like?

While immigration reform advances in the Senate, advocates say the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is a different story.

The House — which like the Senate has its own Gang of Eight, a group of four Democrats and four Republicans — appears to be making progress toward its own comprehensive bill that includes a pathway to legalization.

The sticking point in the House now is whether to mandate health insurance for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are waiting to begin the citizenship process.

This is “important — and ironic,” observed Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress.

It’s important, she said, because a health care requirement “could pose a substantial burden on the 11 million.” The Affordable Care Act bans undocumented immigrants from participating in the government-subsidized health exchanges. That means that if Republicans succeed in mandating health insurance for those on the pathway to legalization, immigrant families would have to purchase their own individual policies.

The irony, noted Kelley, is that Republicans are “asking for a mandate to buy health care insurance, which they opposed in the health reform debate.”

The House is expected to consider immigration reform legislation in July. Even if the House’s Gang of Eight is unsuccessful in reaching a comprehensive immigration reform bill, the House is also looking at several piecemeal bills that would take on E-Verify, the agricultural sector, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs.

After an August recess, the debate is expected to continue into the fall, when members from the House and Senate will meet in a Conference Committee to craft a version of the bill that both chambers can agree on.

The Role of Media: Stay Sober

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, compared the current debate with the last time Congress took up immigration reform in 2006 and 2007. There are “not many hard no’s” this time around, she said, adding there are “many people in the middle who are still trying to figure it out.” With momentum on their side, some pro-immigration reform legislators are even discussing trying to pass the bill with many more than the 60 votes needed in the Senate. But Tramonte cautions against this tactic, saying, “It’s far better to have a good bill with 65 votes than a compromised bill at 75 or 80 votes.”

Despite the momentum, Kelley warns that it’s important for the media that serve U.S. immigrant audiences to remain cautious. With so much excitement over the prospect of immigration reform, some undocumented immigrants could be tempted to pay an unscrupulous notary public or attorney who gives them false promises of legalization.

But there are some things undocumented immigrants can do now to prepare for a possible immigration reform law in the future. Kelley’s advice is to “keep your nose clean,” (getting in trouble with the law will make it harder for an individual to get legalization); “keep your wallet closed” (avoid paying notarios and unscrupulous individuals); “keep records and keep paying taxes” (which can be used as evidence that they were in the country before the cutoff date of Dec. 31, 2011).

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June 13, 2013  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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