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Immigration Policy Update: As Negotiations Continue, More Voices are Raised to Press for Reform

March 13, 2013 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Negotiations Continue, More Hearings, On Immigration Reform

Despite conflict on other issues between the White House and Republican leaders, bipartisan negotiations are progressing on immigration reform.

On February 26, President Obama met with two Republican members of the “Gang of Eight” senators who are negotiating Senate legislation. After meeting with the President, Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona praised the president’s commitment to immigration reform and said that the president understood the border security issues of concern to the senators. On the same day, a spokesperson for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (another member of the Senate negotiating group) said that the senator was pleased with progress being made in the negotiations.

Still, no actual legislation has been introduced, and it now appears that a self-imposed March deadline for the introduction of a bill will not be met. Instead, a bill will more likely be introduced in the Senate after a recess that ends April 8. Shortly after that, there will be a markup in the Judiciary Committee.

House Hearings
The House is in the middle of holding a number of hearings related to immigration. On February 26, there was a hearing in the Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, “What Does Border Security Look Like?” That hearing focused on the issue of metrics used to determine the degree of border security, something that has been and will continue to be a focus in the debate on immigration reform. Along with agency witnesses, the hearing featured testimony from the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office.

Also on February 26, the House Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing, “Agricultural Labor: From H-2A to a Workable Agricultural Guestworker Program.” The hearing put a spotlight on negotiations between representatives of farmworkers and growers, which continue to work toward a common position on undocumented agricultural workers in the context of immigration reform, as well as reforms in the current guest worker program for agriculture. Growers assert that the H-2A program, as it is currently set up, is too cumbersome to use. There is also a desire by some to expand the H-2A program (for seasonal agricultural workers) so that workers can be brought to fill non-seasonal dairy and food processing jobs.

On March 5, the House Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing on “Enhancing American Competitiveness through Skilled Immigration.” Among the witnesses was former Representative Bruce Morrison, who was the sponsor in the House of the Immigration Act of 1990—the last time adjustments were made in the number of visas available in our legal immigration system. In his testimony, he argued for more immigrant visas for the skilled immigration preferences; that employers are really looking to fill permanent positions, which cannot be filled with temporary, non-immigrants on H-1B visas. It seems to be the case fairly often that, in the context of the immigration reform debate, future flow and temporary worker programs are used interchangeability. If employers are looking to fill permanent positions, however, increasing the number of temporary visas available or creating additional temporary worker programs may not be a suitable solution.

There will be more hearings in the House and the Senate this week.

More constituencies engage the debate

While hearings are being held on Capitol Hill, the more interesting news about the immigration debate is coming from outside Washington. The range of voices speaking up for reform is much broader than in past efforts.

Many prominent Evangelical Christian leaders have become supporters of reform, and they are committed to spread the word within their communities. Republicans who are concerned about the negative impact immigration rhetoric has had on their party have formed a super-PAC to push Republican members of Congress to support reform, and to support politicians who are pro-reform. An impressive list of “tech and innovation leaders,” supported by the Partnership for a New American Economy, have come together for a “Virtual March on Washington” to press for immigration reform. The march will take place sometime during congressional consideration of immigration reform legislation. All across the country, business, faith and law enforcement leaders are coming together to discuss the need for immigration reform and drafting their principles for reform in a series of state-based “compacts.” Most recently, the Washington Compact was signed in Yakima, Washington, on March 5 by a coalition of agricultural, faith and business leaders. Also on March 5, The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced it will award $800,000 in special grants to mobilize Catholics to support immigration reform and to support Catholic organizations that will serve immigrant beneficiaries of reform legislation.

These voices, combined with the traditional immigrant advocacy organizations, are expanding the audience for the immigration reform message, both in the public at large and within the halls of Congress.

Immigration and the Sequester

On March 1, the automatic budget cuts to federal agencies and programs—known as the sequester—took effect. In general, this means that non-defense programs that were not exempted from cuts will be cut by about 5%. The impact on agency budgets is actually greater, however, because already five months of the government’s fiscal year (which started on October 1) have gone by. Effectively, this means that agencies must cut their budgets by 9% between now and September 30.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a document that itemizes budget cuts agency by agency. According to this document, Customs and Border Protection will be losing $512 million. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be losing $294 million. Even though U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is mainly funded through fees paid by applicants for services, OMB determined that the Fee Account is not exempt from cuts, and the agency will lose $151 million through sequestration.

The real impact of sequestration will begin to be felt after employee furloughs take effect. (The government must give a 30-day notice of furloughs.) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) put up documents on its Web site to explain what to expect. Among other things, the document indicates that for travelers coming through ports of entry, there will be “increased wait times and reduced hours of service. These impacts will likely increase during the summer peak travel season.”

In preparation for its budget cuts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began releasing immigrant detainees, and placing them in much less expensive supervised release programs. According to the Associated Press, approximately 2,000 immigrants were released, with another 3,000 releases planned. The agency stopped releasing immigrants, at least temporarily, in the face of congressional criticism. Critics claimed that ICE was releasing dangerous criminals and endangering the lives of Americans. (The claims were not backed up.) The immigrants released will still be subject to the removal process.

If the sequester is not reversed, it will be difficult for ICE not to release more detainees, given the congressional mandate to cut their budget by so much in a few months. Detaining immigrants is expensive, and advocacy groups for years have pressed ICE to make more use of less expensive alternatives to detention. ICE and other agencies will face difficulties ahead as they come under attack by members of Congress for carrying out the congressional mandate to cut their budgets across the board.

With VAWA, the House Passes a Bipartisan Bill

On February 28, the House passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, S. 47, which had previously passed the Senate by a vote of 78 to 22. A House version of the bill, which did not have bipartisan support, failed to get the necessary votes before the Senate bipartisan version was taken up. This bill passed with primarily Democratic members voting for it, but with enough Republican support to send it to the president. Some observers feel that the passage of VAWA Reauthorization, though opposed by a majority of Republicans, points to a potential path for an immigration bill, should a majority of Republicans in the House continue to block immigration reform. When Republican leaders feel it is good for the party, they will place a premium on getting something done, rather than trying to please a “majority of the majority.”

Family Unity Waiver Goes into Effect

Beginning March 4, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began accepting waiver applications from certain immigrant visa applicants who are “immediate relatives” of U.S. citizens (spouses, minor children, and parents). Persons who are otherwise eligible for an immigrant visa, but who might be subject to three- or ten-year bars to reentry once they departed the U.S. to pick up their immigrant visa at a U.S. consular office abroad, may now apply for the waiver of the bars to reentry while still in the U.S. This is expected to reduce family separation for citizens who are trying to obtain immigrant visas for their family members. For more information, see this fact sheet from USCIS.

Announcement: E Pluribus Unum Prizes Applications Open

The application period for the Migration Policy Institute’s E Pluribus Unum prizes is now open. The E Pluribus Unum Prizes program awards exceptional initiatives that promote successful immigrant integration. There will be three $50,000 prizes and one Corporate Leadership Award. This year’s application period for the program is open through April 12, 2013. You can also find information about the program by clicking on this link:

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