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Democrats Unveil “Conceptual Proposal” for Immigration Reform

April 30, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

(To read this in Spanish, click here.)

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, along with Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, Immigration Subcommittee Chair Chuck Schumer, and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Bob Menendez held a press conference to release a "Conceptual Proposal for Immigration Reform."

For months, Senators Schumer and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have been in discussions about the contents of an immigration reform bill.  In the past couple of weeks, Senator Graham has backed away from support of immigration reform, insisting that climate change legislation, something he has also been working on (with Senators Kerry and Lieberman), come up first in the Senate.

With the clock ticking on this Congressional session, Democrats decided to release their framework, containing ideas from the bipartisan discussions, and invite other Republican partners without waiting for time to expire.

The ideas contained in the proposal are a starting point for a bill that is meant to get through the Senate.  That means, of course, that it has to be clear about how immigration laws will be enforced in the future.  The rules are proposed to be enforced, however, in the context of a generous program to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and to reform the family- and employment- based immigration systems to eliminate backlogs, to reduce future bottlenecks, and to create more legal channels for immigrant workers.

Treatment of Undocumented Immigrants: The proposal would allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in fear of deportation to begin a process that will result in legal status and a normal life without fear of being torn from their family.  Undocumented immigrants present in the U.S. from the date the bill is introduced will be eligible for an initial registration program that, assuming no problems are uncovered during a security screening process, will give them provisional status with work authorization and ability to travel abroad.  The registration period begins without regard to enforcement triggers mentioned in another part of the proposal (we'll get to that later).  AgJOBs and the DREAM Act are included.

Once the family backlogs are clear, assumed to be eight years, legalizing immigrants will be able to petition for permanent resident status.  Eligibility will be determined by criteria similar to what has been included in previous reform bills—acquiring English language skills, passing criminal background and security checks, and paying taxes.

Spouses and minor children of persons who have gained provisional status would be eligible to join their legalized family member.

This proposal gives immigrants who have been living in the U.S. in Temporary Protected Status, and who have always worried that the time would come when they had to leave the U.S., would be able to apply for legalization.

Family Immigration:  The proposal would clear backlogs in the family immigration system over a period of eight years.  It does not specify how that will be done.  In the future, spouses and minor children of permanent residents will be treated as "immediate relatives," putting them in the same category as spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.  The remainder of the family preference categories will fall under the same overall numerical cap, except that the per-country ceiling will be raised from 7 to 10 percent of total admissions.

In other words, the proposal aims to eliminate current backlogs that have kept family members separated for years, and it makes changes that should reduce the likelihood that major backlogs will develop in the future.

The proposal would also allow the permanent partners of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to obtain immigrant visas, and for refugees and asylees it would eliminate the one-year gap between the grant of refugee or asylee status and application for permanent residence, thus eliminating duplication and speeding integration.

As mentioned above, spouses and minor children of persons who have gained provisional status would be eligible to join their legalized family member.

Immigrant Workers:  The proposal for the first time provides a meaningful number of visas for lower-skilled immigrants who will be able to come on a special temporary, three-year visa for non-seasonal, non-agricultural workers.  Workers who wish to become permanent residents may change their status if they meet certain "integration metrics."  Otherwise, this visa is renewable once.  The number of visas available will adjust up and down depending on what is happening in the economy.  It is the lack of visas available for these workers in the current system (just 5,000 per year) that has been the main driver of illegal immigration.

Current temporary worker programs will have strengthened worker protections, and the agricultural worker program (H-2A) will be reformed in accordance with the agreement between farm worker advocates and farmers enshrined in AgJOBS. 

The proposal also increases opportunities for high-skilled immigrants to become permanent residents by, among other things, offering permanent residence to foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities and eliminating per-country visa caps for employment-based immigrants.

Enforcement:  The proposal starts off with a discussion of "triggers" that must be met during the eight years that legalizing immigrants are in provisional status before they adjust to permanent status.  The triggers include an increase in the Border Patrol, ICE worksite enforcement inspectors, technology and infrastructure on the border, increased immigration court resources, and other items.  There are no specifics (number of Border Patrol agents, etc.) included in the proposal.

Outside of the "triggers" section, more Border Patrol personnel, equipment, and infrastructure are provided for, as will as more resources and personnel at ports of entry.  The US-VISIT exit/entry tracking program will be expanded to all ports of entry.

Penalties are increased for various violations of immigration law.

Enforcement Accountability:  In addition to a listing of more resources, there are provisions to increase accountability of personnel deployed on the border.  For example Customs and Border Protection officers will receive training on avoiding racial profiling and how to deal with vulnerable populations, including children and victims of trafficking.  States will be prohibited from enacting their own immigration rules.  A Border Communities Liaison Office will be established, responsible for conducting outreach to community members and for implementing a standardized complaint process.

The proposal would require minimum standards of detention, both for government-run and privately-owned detention facilities.  It would require the government to, prior to transferring a detainee, wait until arrangements have been made for a detainee's children, and to give "due consideration" to the best interests of a child in decisions relation to detention or transfer.  It strengthens protections for children and certain vulnerable populations.

The proposal would provide incentives for victims of labor law violations to cooperate with law enforcement.  The proposal does not eliminate the controversial 287(g) program, but it would require jurisdictions participating in it to collect and maintain data that will help determine whether they are in compliance with the law.

Biometric Social Security Card:  The bulk of the proposal is devoted to describing a new method of employment verification that involves a Social Security card with a biometric identifier.  Senator Schumer, who Chairs the Immigration Subcommittee, has been a promoter of biometric identifiers to reduce unauthorized employment. 

The card will contain a photograph and another biometric identifier, and will be able to identify the individual without an employer having to access a central database (though work authorization would be verified by on-line database).  The identifiers would not be stored in a central database.  Use of the card for purposes other than employment authorization would be prohibited.  Individuals would have various remedies, including court remedies, should they be wrongly denied work authorization due to faulty data.  Various protections would be put in place for misuse of the system.

Within five years after the date of enactment, the new biometric Social Security card will be the only document accepted to prove work authorization.  Penalties would be increased on employers who hire someone not authorized to work.

The proposal would require the establishment of a national birth and death registration system.

More Information:  The above was a brief sketch of the proposal.  You can find more detailed information in the following materials:

  • The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has posted this summary on their Web site.

  • AILA has also posted the proposal (Real Enforcement with Practical Answers for Immigration Reform, or REPAIR) on its Web site here.

  • The reaction of Reform Immigration FOR America can be found here.

What's Next?  The proposal is not a bill.  It contains ideas that could be included in a bi-partisan bill, and it is an invitation for Republicans to join the conversation.  At some point, Republicans are going to have to do more than refuse to do anything.  We also need the President to step up and lead on this issue.  We are in an environment where getting anything done is not going to be easy.  But there is still time, and if Congress can summon the will, they can certainly pass immigration reform.  Pressure to act is getting more intense, and it will be stepped up on May 1st.

Outside of Congress, many will take issue with the proposal as it was introduced.  There is certainly plenty of room for improvement.  However, any bill that might move through the Senate and get the 60 votes required to pass will necessarily contain controversial elements.  If this proposal becomes legislation, it will represent the best chance for taking care of the urgent matter of relieving the fear of deportation and family separation that will only grow in the years to come if Congress fails to pass immigration reform this year.

Border Security Mania

April 29, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

National Guard on Border

At the end of March, there was a drive-by shooting in the District of Columbia just a few miles from the White House.  Four people were killed.  Five more wounded.

No one called for the deployment of the National Guard.

At about the same time, a rancher in southern Arizona was murdered by someone whose tracks led to Mexico.  The murder sparked outrage against the Federal Government, and there have been calls to beef up border security, several hearings in Congress, and a deluge of requests for the National Guard.  The murder galvanized support for the new Arizona law that may well result in a significant portion of Arizona's population being regularly stopped to show their papers to prove they are not in the country illegally.

Moreover, Arizona's two Republican Senators released a "10 point plan" that leads off with a call for deployment of the National Guard:

"Immediately deploy 3,000 National Guard Troops along the Arizona/Mexico border, … which shall remain in place until the Governor of Arizona certifies … that the Federal Government has achieved operational control of the border.  Permanently add 3,000 Custom and Border Protection Agents to the Arizona/Mexico border by 2015."

Let's step back for a minute.

The murder was a terrible thing.  But even if 50,000 more Border Patrol agents are deployed and 50,000 National Guard are sent to the border, they are not going to be able to stop every crime from happening. Just like anywhere else in the country, the police (or in this case Border Patrol) cannot be everywhere at once. 

In other communities around the country, people get this.  When it comes to the border, however, every incident is an opportunity for politicians to say the border is not "secure" and we must secure it before we even consider fixing our broken immigration system.  The goalposts keep moving back, and there will always be incidents to give politicians excuses to move the goalposts back further.  That's especially true of politicians who would rather avoid the hard work of reforming our immigration system.

In 2007, conservatives insisted on certain "benchmarks" being met in border enforcement before a legalization program could be implemented.  These were written into the compromise immigration reform legislation at the time. 

What were they?

  • 18,000 Border Patrol agents and staff support.  There are now more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents.  This does not include thousands of agents from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and other agencies.  Some of these federal agents are deployed at ports of entry, some are assisting in the fight against drug cartels.

  • 570 miles of vehicle and pedestrian fencing, 70 ground-based radar and camera towers, and 4 unmanned aerial vehicles.  There are now nearly 645 miles of vehicle and pedestrian barriers, covering most of the distance between the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande River.  Towers have fallen out of favor since 2007, but there are now 28 of them supplemented by 41 mobile surveillance systems with radar and cameras, plus another 16 remote video surveillance systems.  There are 5 unmanned aerial drones.

  • Resources to remove anyone crossing the southern border, and detention space for 27,500.  The practice of apprehending someone, booking them, and releasing them until their future court date (so-called "catch and release") was ended years ago.  Persons apprehended on the border are removed or held in detention.  There are now spaces for 33,400 detainees.

The benchmarks have been more than met, especially regarding agents deployed.

OK, so maybe crime has gotten completely out of control since the 2007 benchmarks were set and we do need new benchmarks—another 3,000 Border Patrol agents; another 3,000 National Guard, etc.

Let's take a look.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the violent crime rate in Arizona (as of 2008, the latest statistics available) has been declining since it peaked in 1993.  It is now lower than it has been since the early 1970s.  The property crime rate has also declined since it peaked in 1995.  It hasn't been this low since the mid-1960s.  The city with the highest violent crime rate in Arizona, Tucson, ranks 38th nationally (behind Wichita, Kansas).  The decline in crime has coincided with a steep rise in Arizona's undocumented population.

So why is there a sense that the border is out of control, that crime is out of control, and that draconian anti-immigrant measures are necessary to bring order back to the state?

Timothy Egan takes a stab at explaining what's going on in this blog post at the New York Times

"…this place is a warning of what a state can look like when it’s run by talk-radio demagogues and their television cohorts."

The same legislature that passed SB 1070 passed a "birther" bill, requiring anyone who wants to run for political office to show their birth certificate, and made it legal for residents to carry concealed weapons—without a permit. 

As the state prepares to spend millions in legal fees defending its new anti-immigrant law,

"Its state parks are orphans, left to volunteers. Its university system is being slashed and picked to death. They even considered a plan to sell the House and Senate buildings."

Another angle is to look at cost and benefit tradeoffs.  As I mentioned, people in communities around the country understand that the police can't be everywhere at once.  Yet, people don't call for officers to be deployed on every street corner.  There is a tradeoff.  Communities must balance their budgets.  They pick priorities, and spend on initiatives that will be most effective in keeping people safe.  To pay for additional security, taxes must go up.  At the federal level, this is not the case.  Politicians can demand—and deploy—millions of dollars of additional resources in a quest for votes.  There is no need to raise taxes.  Money will be borrowed, and the cost will be charged to future taxpayers, who don't currently vote.

The border is fodder for politicians who are looking for votes from loud and angry people who do not like the changes they see around them, and who listen to talk show hosts whose ratings depend on how well they divide Americans against each other.  We will never have a secure border as long as we have politicians who seek political points with calls for "securing the border" while avoiding the hard work of reforming our immigration system. 

Image by Flickr user Jim Greenhill.

Let the Lawsuits Begin!

April 26, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

AZ law protest

Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070, that will require police to investigate a person's immigration status if they have "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally.  The law takes effect in three months.

It will take effect, that is, if it can survive the first round of legal challenges expected to be filed.  Judging by the reaction so far, that will be a long shot. 

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) issued a statement saying that "MALDEF and others will be pursuing all legal avenues to challenge this law," and that,

"We have every expectation, based upon judicial precedent and unquestioned constitutional values, that SB 1070 will be enjoined before it can ever take effect."

Another group announcing legal action is the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders (CONLAMIC) Legal Defense Fund, which represents 300 Latino evangelical churches and pastors in Arizona and said it is moving "expeditiously" to challenge the law on constitutional grounds. 

Last Friday, speaking at a naturalization ceremony for military personnel at the White House, President Obama condemned the Arizona law and said,

"I’ve instructed members of my administration to closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation."

Over the weekend, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon had an op-ed published in the Washington Post strongly condemning the Arizona law and urging Governor Brewer to call a special session of the legislature to fix the law's flaws.  Until she does, Gordon said,

"we will explore every option available to quell the fear and frustration that have become rampant here. Already, I have called a special meeting of the Phoenix City Council to establish standing to sue the state on the grounds that S.B. 1070 unconstitutionally co-opts our police force to enforce immigration laws that are the rightful jurisdiction of the federal government."

Former Arkansas Governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee appeared on Fox news over the weekend and said that the Arizona law will be a "lawsuit bonanza."

"…it’s going to open Arizona up to a plethora of lawsuits. I think it's just a fact that you'll have so many lawsuits that it will be very very costly to the state of Arizona."

How costly?  One town in Texas, Farmer's Branch, enacted a law in 2006 requiring landlords to verify the immigration status of potential renters.  According to the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the town has already spent $3.2 million in legal fees related to this ordinance, which was struck down in federal court.  It plans to spend at least another $150,000 on an appeal.

The Immigration Policy Center wrote this blog post giving some idea of what it might cost the state for law enforcement costs, jail processing costs, attorneys' fees—plus the collateral damage that may result from the Arizona economy if Latinos leave the state.

If there is one good thing to come out of the Arizona legislation, it is to create a new sense of urgency for Congress to act to reform our immigration laws.  There have been a number of reports in the press about immigration reform making its way to the top of the Congressional agenda.

This prompted Lindsey Graham, the lone Republican who has been working with Democrats to draft immigration reform and climate change legislation, to say he would pull his support of climate change legislation unless it were scheduled before immigration reform.

"The only reason I went forward is, I thought we had a shot if we got the business and environmental community behind our proposal, and everybody was focused on it. What's happened is that firm, strong commitment disappeared."

This itself is a sad comment on the state of Congress.  It's April.  Graham is essentially saying that the Senate can do only one thing between now and … October.  For it's part, the Administration is saying it believes both can be done.  If Graham could convince his Republican colleagues to spend more time contributing to the policy debate, and less time plotting their next filibuster, business would move more swiftly in the Senate.

In her signing statement, Governor Brewer noted something we can all agree with:

"We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act. But decades of inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation."

It is way past time for Congress to act.

Image from Reform Immigration FOR America on Flickr.

Making Community Policing Illegal

April 22, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

community watch sign

In Arizona, the Governor has not yet signed the new racial profiling bill, SB 1070, that will give police the authority to investigate an individual if an officer has "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is in the country illegally.  It also gives Arizonans the right to sue the police if they don't think the police are sufficiently enforcing the law.

Yesterday, the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative held a press conference to talk about concerns with the bill from a law enforcement perspective.

As reported in the Arizona Republic, former Mesa (Arizona) Police Chief George Gascón talked about how the law might lead police to engage in racial profiling, even if not intentionally:

"It will increase the risk that police officers, especially those who are untrained, will be placed in a situation where they will try to comply with the law and will be looking for characteristics to try to determine whether someone is here without authority.  People who appear to be of Hispanic descent, who speak with an accent, are going to be targeted."

Gabriel Chin, a University of Arizona law professor, put it differently:

"If you're in a high non-citizen neighborhood, that plus race plus other things . . . it isn't difficult to put people in a position where the cop can forcibly stop them and start asking questions."

In other words, if you are in an immigrant community and you look like…an immigrant, you will be in a "position" for cops to forcibly stop you and start asking questions.

The bill, Chief Gascón argued, "will have a catastrophic effect on policing and set back community policing efforts for decades."

"People will be more hesitant to report crimes, and that will create some very, very tough circumstances for local police in dealing with crime issues in areas heavily visited by people here from other countries."

The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police also stated their opposition to the bill, saying that it would "negatively affect the ability of law enforcement agencies across the state to fulfill their many responsibilities in a timely manner."

Colorado Springs Chief Richard Myers (also speaking in the press conference) cautioned that Arizona residents might not like the shift in priorities that the law may bring about:

"If I have a shots-fired call or the potential to stop someone who might be checked for documented status, I'm going to do that before I respond to shots fired because I won't get sued if don't respond to shots fired," he said.

Also, as police focus on non-criminal undocumented immigrants, other work won't be getting done.  Maricopa County in Arizona has already experienced this.  As Sherriff Joe Arpaio made it a priority to round up immigrants, his agency wasn't going after felons on the loose.  By 2008, there were more than 40,000 outstanding felony warrants in the county.  These were people who had committed more serious crimes than walking across the border illegally, but who were nonetheless not a priority for Sherriff Joe. That number has gone down recently, after a coordinated effort by federal and local forces—to 38,000.  As U.S. Marshal David Gozales noted, "many fugitives commit other crimes while avoiding arrest."  On the other hand, the favorite targets of Sherriff Joe are mostly providing for their families while avoiding deportation. 

There are enforcement associations who are in favor of the bill.  According to the Arizona Republic, Officer Justin Harris, president of the Glendale Law Enforcement Association, offered a sort of preventive detention rationale for the bill:  By taking undocumented immigrants off the streets, police will be preventing crimes they might commit.

You can't argue with that.  It is also true that, since most crimes are committed by citizens, taking citizens off the streets would allow police to prevent crimes they might commit. 

The specter of states following Arizona's lead and declaring open season on Latinos is one element of the increasing pressure on Congress to fix the broken immigration system.  On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed that moving immigration reform forward in this Congress is a "moral imperative" even if it means postponing climate change legislation.

A recording of the press conference by the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative should soon be available here.

Image from Flickr user Toban Black.

Then and Now

April 20, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

McCain 2005

In the opening scene from "The Senator's Bargain," by filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini and recently aired on HBO, Senator John McCain, at a dinner for the National Immigration Forum, is movingly reading from a newspaper article on what happens to the body of immigrants who die from the unforgiving desert sun as they try to cross the border to follow their dream of a better life.  That was one reason why we need comprehensive immigration reform, he told the hushed audience.

Back in 2005, on the very day this scene took place, Senator McCain, working with Senator Edward Kennedy, introduced comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would have legalized millions of undocumented immigrants.  Introducing the bill on the Senate floor, McCain said,

"I don't believe there is another issue that is more important to our Nation than immigration reform. For far too long, our Nation's broken immigration laws have gone unreformed, leaving Americans vulnerable. We can no longer afford to delay reform."

The McCain/Kennedy approach contrasted starkly with that of the House, which later that year passed the "Sensenbrenner bill" H.R. 4437, making illegal presence in the U.S. a crime.

That was five years ago.

Yesterday, the Arizona Senate passed legislation, previously passed in the House, that would make illegal presence in Arizona a crime, and gives local police the authority to investigate if they have "reasonable suspicion" that a person is in the country illegally.  Senator McCain said of the bill,

“I think it’s a very important step forward,”

As for immigration reform, apparently Senator McCain now thinks we can afford to delay.  Speaking on a local radio station today, McCain said,

"There's no point of having immigration reform unless you can have the borders secure first."

Also yesterday, Senators McCain and Jon Kyl held a press conference to introduce a "Ten Point Border Security Action Plan."  Mainly, the plan consists of throwing more money and more personnel at the southwest border.  Among other things, the plan calls for 3,000 National Guard troops and 3,000 more Border Patrol agents (in addition to the 20,000 already deployed).  It calls for full funding and support for Operation Streamline, an extremely wasteful effort to throw all migrants crossing the border illegally into jail at taxpayer expense instead of removing them from the country right away.  There is no room in the plan for real solutions to our broken immigration system.

The difference between five years ago and now is that Senator McCain is running for re-election and is facing a Republican primary challenge from former Representative and current immigration hardliner J.D. Hayworth, who was knocked from his House seat in 2006 when his anti-immigrant message apparently didn't go over with enough of his constituents. In the primary, however, hardliners are more influential, and Senator McCain's immigration pronouncements today would be unrecognizable to someone listening to him five years ago.  In politics, leadership can sometimes be a liability.

The Arizona legislation would seem to give the green light for local enforcement agencies to engage in racial profiling, since it is not clear what will constitute "reasonable suspicion" that someone is in the country illegally.  Police might err on the side of incaution, since if they are not seen as sufficiently enforcing the law, private citizens will have the right to sue the police.  With the law's constitutionally-questionable provisions, the many civil rights abuses that will undoubtedly be spurred by the law, and the right it gives anyone to sue if they don't think it is being enforced, the law might end up being some sort of lawyers full employment act.

An analysis of the legislation can be obtained from the ACLU here.

The legislation has been sent to the Governor for her signature.  There will be a flurry of activity to get her to veto the bill, beginning with last night's candlelight vigil in front of the Governor's office by 150 people. 

You can click here and sign a petition to ask the Governor to veto the bill.

Taxes… Someone’s Gotta Pay ‘em

April 16, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Tax form

Yesterday, while the tea party turned out to protest their taxes, there were counter-demonstrations, of a sort, by immigrants who were telling us, "Bring 'em on!" 

Most of the media focus on tax day is on people who complain about their taxes.  This year, there was an effort by advocates for immigrants to show that, not only are immigrants willing to contribute, but comprehensive immigration reform, according to the Immigration Policy Center and the Center for American Progress, is predicted to result in an increase of as much as $5.4 billion in additional tax revenue for the U.S. within a three-year period.  This is for a variety of reasons, including bringing some immigrants working in the underground economy on to the tax rolls, and the prospect that some immigrants would move into more stable jobs with higher pay.  One of the actions advocates carried out yesterday was a visit to the office of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison with box loads of blank tax forms representing taxes that could be added to the treasury if only Congress would pass comprehensive immigration reform.

While loving taxes might be a bit of a stretch, it is impressive the extent to which undocumented immigrants, who are ordinarily not made to feel welcome in their encounters with the government, are nevertheless determined to figure out how to interact with the government to pay their taxes.  An article from the Associated Press from 2007 looked in to some empirical measurements:

"One measure of the immigrant market is the growth of Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, or ITINs, which the IRS issues to immigrants to use on their tax forms instead of Social Security numbers.

Last year [2006], the IRS issued 1.5 million ITINs, the most since the program was started in 1996 and a 30 percent increase from the 1.2 million issued in 2005. In total, the agency has issued 10.8 million ITINs since the program began [though not all have gone to immigrants in the U.S.]."

ITINS are issued to persons who are not entitled to Social Security numbers.  Most are thought to be issued to undocumented immigrants.

Why do they bother?  Eric Jiminez, an undocumented immigrant from Nashville, told the Associated Press in this article from USA Today that he knows nothing would happen to him if he didn't pay his taxes, but,

"I have an idea, a mentality, that to be a good citizen you have to pay taxes," he said. "Also, I'm conscious of the fact that the money we pay in taxes supports the schools and all the public services."

The Social Security Administration has estimated that about three-quarters of undocumented immigrant workers pay in to the Social Security and Medicare system, even though they are not eligible to receive benefits.  In 2005, most of the $9 billion in taxes paid into the Social Security system that could not be matched to a legitimate Social Security account was thought to have come from taxes paid by undocumented immigrants.

The tax impact of immigrants, however, comes from more than their individual payments.  It comes from the prosperity they bring to the communities in which they reside.  A new study by the Fiscal Policy Institute (summarized in this article in the New York Times) provides some interesting data on immigrants in the 25 largest U.S. metropolitan areas.  The article notes that, contrary to the popular image that recent immigration has flooded the U.S. with low-wage workers,

"…the 25 million immigrants who live in the country’s largest metropolitan areas (about two-thirds of all immigrants in the country) are nearly evenly distributed across the job and income spectrum."

Even more intriguing, the cities with the greatest economic growth were not the ones that attracted primarily high-skilled immigrants.

"…the fastest economic growth between 1990 and 2008 was in cities like Atlanta, Denver and Phoenix that received large influxes of immigrants with a mix of occupations — including many in lower-paid service and blue-collar jobs."

For example,

"In metropolitan Denver, where the economy doubled between 1990 and 2008, 63 percent of immigrants worked in jobs on the lower end of the pay scale."

As the report notes,

"Immigration is part of the story of economic growth. Immigrants are drawn by economic expansion, and once they are in a metro area they earn and spend money, expand consumer demand, start small businesses to meet new needs, and fuel further growth."

That new prosperity leads to more tax revenue.

We are going to need more taxpayers, because our society is aging and unprecedented numbers are retiring from the workforce. 

Immigrants tend to be younger than the population as a whole, and have their prime earning years ahead of them.

On the other hand, people who identify themselves as supporters of the tea party, according to a New York Times survey tend to be older than 45.  Many of them are drawing Social Security benefits, or soon will be.  We need workers paying in to the system so that these tea party activists can continue to draw the benefits to which they are entitled.  One tea party supporter interviewed for the survey was asked what she thought about her advocacy for smaller government while she was drawing Social Security.  She told the interviewer,

"I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security."

Good thing for her that there are immigrants who want to be a part of our country and pay their taxes.

Congress Returns from Recess

April 14, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Congress is returning this week from a two-week break.  There is still no comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate, where we expect action to take place first.  It is still true that Senators Schumer and Graham are taking the lead on forging an agreement that can serve as a legislative starting point.  Before the break, the two Senators published an op-ed in the Washington Post laying out a "framework"—or as much of a framework as would fit in a 750-word op-ed.

If the Senators follow through with the work that has begun, we expect they will introduce a bill that will have at its core a legalization program for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country.  What is wrapped around that core is the subject of the negotiations now taking place.  Whatever emerges, though, will contain a mix of enforcement and progressive policy changes that the Senators believe will allow them to gain the support of 60 Republican and Democratic Senators.  That necessarily means the bill will contain elements that would not be included if we were trying to pass a bill in a body consisting entirely of immigration reform advocates.

No matter what is in the bill, getting the requisite number of votes will be very challenging.  There are a number of Republican Senators who want to delay things as much as possible (on any issue), and Senator Kyl (AZ), the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, has already said that, "Republicans will use the opportunity [of an immigration reform bill] to filibuster."

That's looking ahead, though. Right now, we don't even have a bill to filibuster.  Reform Immigration FOR America has been ratcheting up the pressure for the introduction of a bill.  There were a series of rallies for immigration reform on April 10.  In Las Vegas, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid addressed a rally organized in that town.  He told the crowd, “We are going to pass comprehensive immigration reform.  We need to do this this year."  At another rally in Chicago, Senator Richard Durbin, the second-in-line in the Senate Democratic leadership, told a crowd of more than 1,000 persons, "We must pass immigration reform. We must pass it this year.”  There will be more events in more cities around the country on May 1.

The "Conventional Wisdom" is Evolving: Up to now in the press, the predominant narrative in the mainstream press regarding immigration reform has been that Democrats won't want to tackle another difficult issue before the November elections.  The assumption is that immigration reform might stir opponents to come to the polls. 

There is, of course, more to an election than avoiding negative votes.  You have to get voters to come to the polls and vote FOR you.  Reform advocates have argued for some time that if the Democrats fail to take up immigration reform, it will be hard to motivate Latinos to turn out in November.  In the last election, with Barack Obama promising to make immigration reform a priority, Latinos heavily favored Democrats and helped Democrats win swing states. 

The argument that Democrats need the Latino vote, and therefore must tackle reform, is beginning to gain traction in the mainstream media.  There have been many stories appearing in recent days highlighting the disillusionment of Latinos as the promise of immigration reform remains unfulfilled. Political observers are also starting to talk about this.  Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, for example, said that "the cynical take" on Senator Reid's appearance at an immigration rally in Las Vegas (mentioned above) is that "Reid is running for reelection in a state that's about 20 percent Hispanic."  He also notes that if suggesting that Democrats will push for reform is the "cynical" view, then "that suggests an important change in the political reality," and makes it more likely that immigration reform will be on the agenda.

So, the two schools of thought will duke it out in the coming weeks: Take action to deliver on promises to major constituencies and solve problems, or don't tackle difficult problems to avoid upsetting people who aren't going to vote for you anyway. 

More Rallies for Reform

April 13, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Chicago Rally

People continue to raise their voices to pressure Members of Congress to pass immigration reform legislation.  Saturday, thousands of immigration reform advocates rallied in seven cities across the U.S.

The most high-profile event took place in Las Vegas, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid addressed a crowd of several thousand who had gathered downtown.  The immigration reform rally was the largest of those Senator Reid addressed in his two-weeks of campaigning in the state.  Senator Reid did not hedge his positions on immigration reform.  He told the crowd that he thought the Senate needed to take up immigration reform this year.

"There are no excuses. This is something America needs," Reid said. "We're going to do immigration reform just like we did health care reform."

Senator Reid told the crowd that he believed immigration reform would garner the support of all but three Democrats in the Senate, so reform proponents would need only "a handful of Republicans" to get past a filibuster. 

In Seattle's Pioneer Square, there was also a large rally for immigration reform.  People came by bus from all over the state to participate and to hear Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell address the crowd via videotape.  Both Washington Senators support comprehensive immigration reform.  Speaking in person at the rally was U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D).

In Chicago, more than a thousand people turned out for an immigration reform rally.  Senator Richard Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, made a strong pitch for immigration reform,

"In the name of all who fight for social justice, in the name of the families who go to bed with tears in their eyes facing deportation and separation, in their name, we cannot fail. We must pass immigration reform. We must pass it this year," said Durbin.

Senator Durbin echoed Senator Reid's comment that all but a few Democrats would support immigration reform.  Of the President, Senator Durbin said that reform advocates would "need that same determination and that same commitment to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year" as the President showed in the health care reform battle.

Also addressing the reform advocates at the Chicago rally was the President of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, who expressed his concern that failure to reform immigration is leading to " a growing yet hidden population in many towns" who avoid reporting crimes for fear of being turned in to immigration authorities. 

"If they are afraid to speak to us because of their status, we are not giving them the protection they deserve," O'Connor said.

In El Paso, more than 1,000 people rallied at the University of Texas and marched to downtown El Paso.  There were also events in Philadelphia, Providence, and Lakewood, New Jersey.

The wave of rallies took place at the end of a two-week Congressional recess.  Pressure will continue to build on Congress to reform the immigration system this year.  More rallies are planned for May 1.

Image: Chicago Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Outside the Beltway Roundup

April 09, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger


With Congress still out on recess, the action on immigration reform continues to be outside the beltway and, in any event, one can get a better sense of the momentum for reform by looking at what is going on around the country.  So, here are a few items from around the country from this week's news: Advocates from Nashville return from Washington and turn to the task of convincing their fellow Tennesseans that immigration reform is crucial.  North America's fastest-growing labor union is fed up with ICE, and is taking action.  There will be more major immigration rallies Saturday.  Finally, a new poll from California highlights another aspect of demographic change and a shift in the political climate for immigration reform.

Middle Tennesseans for Immigration Reform
An article in the weekly Nashville City Paper focused on the "sizeable contingent of middle Tennesseans" who traveled in a 10-bus caravan to Washington to attend the March 21st immigration rally in Washington. The article noted that this "surprising show of organizational muscle" may signal a change in the immigration debate in Tennessee.

"Middle Tennessee's immigrant population has been defined publicly less on its own terms than by a small opposition's attempts to stymie it."

Today, however, a new willingness to speak up in its own defense,

"…represents a step forward for the region's immigrant population as a whole, a sign this widening slice of the demographic is no longer content to remain a cloistered part of the local political and social fabric."

The article notes that Nashville is already ahead of the curve in tolerance for newcomers.  In the days ahead, the task will be "to turn immigration reform from a minority issue into one all Tennesseans see as crucial."  As Stephen Fotopulos, Executive Director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition told the paper,

"It's important for people to know that this is not just an issue in Illinois or New York or California.  This is our immigration system, and it's failing all Americans, whether you're an immigrant or not."

SEIU Wants ICE to Re-Focus
In the wake of a slew of reports about the misdirection of immigration enforcement, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has organized a series of vigils at the offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) around the country.  Thursday, there were vigils in Sacramento and Oakland.  Today, there are vigils in San Jose, Los Angeles, Boston, and St. Paul.  There will be more.  According to SEIU's media advisory,

"Thursday and Friday's vigils are an effort to illustrate the ongoing, human cost of this agency's misguided, out-of-control immigration enforcement strategy…. ICE's "strategy" of sowing misery in workplaces and communities not only fails to tackle the underlying issue of our broken immigration system, it also contradicts efforts to improve wages and working conditions of all U.S. workers.

A(nother) National Day of Action
Tomorrow, April 10th, tens of thousands of immigrants and their supporters are expected to rally in support of immigration reform in Seattle, Las Vegas, Chicago, Philadelphia, El Paso, Providence, and Lakewood, New Jersey.  We look forward to the stories coming out of those events.

Immigration Politics and Demographic Change
An article in April 8th's Los Angeles Times highlighted a new public opinion poll from the Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California in which Californians were asked their views on immigration reform.  The poll showed that Californians, by wide margins, would support "stronger enforcement at the border" coupled with "a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants who admit they broke the law, perform community service, pay fines and back taxes and learn English."  More than two-thirds (67%) support such a proposal.  There is similar support for a proposal in which there is stronger enforcement coupled with a guest worker program.

The other option given in the poll, stronger border enforcement plus denial of public services to undocumented immigrants, is opposed by a plurality of Californians.  This opposition contrasts with support for Proposition 187 in the mid-1990s, a ballot initiative to deny public benefits to undocumented immigrants that passed by 60%.

The article discusses a phenomenon that may partially explain why organized opposition to immigration reform is becoming more anemic, while reform advocates seem to be gaining momentum.  That phenomenon is demographic change.  Not the kind of demographic change that we are always talking about, the rapidly-growing Latino and New American electorate, but something else that has been taking place at the same time.

Californians aged 18 to 29 opposed this proposal [to deny undocumented immigrants social services from the state] by more than a 20-point margin, while voters 65 and over supported it by 12 points. That's a differential of more than 30 points between age groups ... a much larger disparity than when the results were examined by racial or ethnic category. Further, on the more basic question of whether illegal immigrants have an overall positive or negative effect on the state, voters under 45 joined Latino and Asian American respondents in answering that illegal immigrants represent a net benefit.

The difference is not explained by a greater cohort of immigrant young people.  It is true of white young people as well.  Young people are growing up with people from all over the world.  Immigrants are classmates, friends, and co-workers, not "invaders."  As the Times notes,

"…the growth in the Latino and Asian population in the state has given young Californians a much higher comfort level than their elders with those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In both cases, exposure has brought familiarity, which has in turn brought tolerance."

While young people still vote in lower percentages than their elders, they are still a growing part of the electorate, and yet another reason why immigration reform is not just good politics but good policy.

Image: Reform Immigration FOR America

Update: Advocates Call on Administration to End 287(g)

April 08, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Yesterday, the Reform Immigration FOR America campaign staged a press conference calling for the Obama Administration to end the 287(g) program. The press conference was organized in the wake of the release last week of a report by the DHS inspector general, who found fundamental flaws in the program, including a lack of attention to the protection of civil rights.

While the advocates who spoke on the call were calling for the termination of 287(g), they also talked about other aspects of the Administration's enforcement strategy.  Comparing the previous administration with the current one, Pablo Alvarado, of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said of the 287(g) program,

"In Maricopa County, the only thing that has changed since George W. Bush left office is that it is now the Obama Administration that is enabling Sheriff Joe Arpaio to terrorize Latinos in the fourth largest city in America."

Crystal Williams, from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that the program is flawed in so many ways it should be set aside.

"When things happen like accident victims being taken in for questioning about their immigration status instead of being taken to the hospital, something is wrong. When checkpoints are keeping people from going to church or going to the grocery store or going to school, something is wrong.  When scarce law enforcement resources are being used on pretexts to arrest Latino-looking people to explore their immigration status, something is wrong."

Eliseo Medina, of Service Employees International Union, said that, while he at first believed that the Obama Administration would focus enforcement primarily on abusive employers, it is still workers who are feeling the brunt of enforcement.  As a result,

"Thousands of workers, once in the legitimate, taxed economy, are now being pushed into the underground economy, which further drives down wages for U.S. workers.  The underground economy of sweatshops and cash payments benefits only the most abusive, off-the-books employers, who will never be reached by audits, because they don't pay taxes or provide reports to the IRS."

Looking back over the years, Medina noted that the longer we go without fixing our broken immigration system, the worse things get.

"The system has been broken for a long time, it is getting worse as time goes by, and unless we take action to fix it, we are going to end up spending a lot more money on enforcement that is ineffective, we are going to end up with a lot more churning of the workforce, we are going to wind up with the growth of the underground economy, with attendant loss not only of benefits for workers but also to the tax base and the erosion of wage standards for all workers."

"We cannot fix this economy unless we figure out a way in which all workers can have the same rights and responsibilities, and we can only do that with a comprehensive immigration reform bill."

You can listen to a recording of this press conference on our press conference archive page.

As we mentioned in our post on April 6, the Inspector General's report on 287(g) is just one in a series of reports on the program that have been released recently: one from the ACLU of Georgia, one from the Migration Policy Institute, and one from the University of North Carolina.  You can find links to these reports, and to other reports on 287(g) and related programs, on our State and Local Enforcement page in our Research Center.

The frustration with the Administration's enforcement policies, and with Congressional lack of action on immigration reform, is increasing.  As Mr. Medina noted on the call yesterday, until we have immigration reform, "the problem is not going to go away and neither are we."

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