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Immigration Policy Update: House, Senate Committees Consider Reform

February 22, 2013 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

In both the House and the Senate, Immigration Reform has taken a step in the path from principles to legislation. With their first hearings, the House and Senate had very different discussion. Nevertheless, both chambers have begun to grapple with the problem and give indications of the direction they may go in.

House Judiciary Committee Hearing
On February 5, the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing, titled “America's Immigration System: Opportunities for Legal Immigration and Enforcement of Laws against Illegal Immigration.” There were two panels. The first panel focused on the immigration of high-skilled immigrants, while the second panel focused generally on enforcement.

Among the themes emerging from the first panel was that we should be making it easier for high-skilled immigrants to come, while eliminating opportunities for legal immigration for other immigrants. Michael Teitelbaum, who had served on the Commission on Immigration Reform (the Jordan Commission) in the 1990s, said that the Commission had recommended prioritizing immediate family members and high-skilled immigrants. In the family immigration system, he said that the U.S. should give visas only to spouses and minor children of citizens, parents of citizens, and spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents. Visas for brothers and sisters of citizens and for adult children of citizens (and Diversity Visas) should be reallocated. The admission of low-skilled workers, he asserted, was not in the national interest. Both Rep. Goodlatte (R-Virginia, Chair of the Committee) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) seemed to agree with the elimination of family immigration categories beyond the “immediate” family members.

Another theme that emerged from Republican members of the Committee is that there should be an opportunity for compromise between the “extremes” of mass deportation and a path to citizenship. “If you want a political solution,” said Rep. Labrador, “you will insist on citizenship. If you want a policy solution, there is willingness in the House to explore options.” Julian Castro, Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and one of the witnesses, made the point that the Senate compromise embodied in the principles released last month was the best place to start.

The second panel was more focused on enforcement. One of the witnesses, Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute, weighed in on another theme that was repeated in this hearing, but has also been very much a part of the immigration reform debate. The lesson from IRCA was not, as is commonly repeated in the media, that the laws were not enforced. In fact, there were three key problems that lead us to the current immigration situation: First, IRCA established a cutoff date that made undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. within five years of the law’s enactment ineligible for legalization. That left a nucleus around which a new population of undocumented immigrants would grow. Second, there was not a good implementation strategy to enforce employer sanctions, which relied on a menu of documents, many of which could be easily forged. Most importantly, however, IRCA did not deal with legal immigration, and in the years since that law passed, demand for immigrant visas has grown and our legal immigration system has not adjusted.

Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing
On February 13, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first meeting on comprehensive immigration reform. There were two panels, the first consisting only of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Much of her testimony focused on the progress the administration has made in border and interior immigration law enforcement.

Some of the opponents of immigration reform on the Committee tried to challenge the Secretary—not very successfully—on her claims of progress on the border. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), for example, said that he understood that, for every person arrested while attempting to cross the border, three are successful in crossing illegally. However, that was a statistic/guess that was thrown around in the 1980s, when the number of Border Patrol agents was less than 4,000. Today, there are more than 21,000. Sen. Cornyn also used parts of a Government Accountability Office report to back up his claim that the border was not under “operational control,” while neglecting to mention that the broader point made by the same report, as Secretary Napolitano noted, was that fewer people are crossing illegally and much progress has been made. Still, the issue of how progress is measured on control of the border will be one that Senators will continue to grapple with.

Another theme challenging the bipartisan movement towards broad reform came from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). He said that Senators should not assume that “comprehensive” is the way to go. He said that “we have an historic opportunity to make progress on areas where we have consensus,” and mentioned some enforcement measures and high-skilled immigration bills that he has sponsored. The problem is that some of the consensus on these issues is achieved in the context of broader reform, and may fall away if the Senate tries to leave big pieces of the immigration system unfixed.

Another topic raised repeatedly was the exit system—a system that will tell us when someone who has entered the country on a temporary visit has left the country. Several Senators noted that securing the border against persons crossing illegally does not stop the individuals who come legally and overstay their visas. Secretary Napolitano said that DHS has implemented an “enhanced biographic exit system,” and plans eventually to implement a biometric exit system at airports, which will be very expensive. Thus far, she said the money hasn’t been there for such a system.

Yet another theme, coming from Senators from dairy states (and this was flagged in the House hearing as well), was a complaint that dairy farmers cannot bring in people legally through the H-2A non-immigrant visa program, which is for seasonal agriculture. As Senator Franken (D-Minn.) put it, “If cows were milked seasonally, there would be a lot of uncomfortable cows.”

The second panel included Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and undocumented American who gave powerful personal testimony on his life since being brought here by his grandfather in 1993. (His testimony is worth a read.) He concluded his statement by asking the Senators a few questions of his own: “What do you want to do with me? What do you want to do with us? How do you define American?”

In his testimony, Vargas highlighted a phenomenon that is not much discussed in the immigration debate today, but perhaps has been a key weakness of the enforcement-only approach. In the room with Mr. Vargas were some of the individuals who had supported him since he was a teenager—a high-school principle, a school superintendent, a benefactor who gave him a scholarship so he could attend college. “Across the country there are countless [others] who stand alongside their undocumented neighbors. They don’t need to see pieces of paper…to treat us as human beings. This is the truth about immigration in our America.”

Among others who testified on this panel was Steve Case, Chairman and CEO of Revolution and co-founder of America Online. Mr. Case argued persuasively for more visas for immigrants with science and technology skills. He was not there, however, to argue for a narrow course of action:

    "I believe that the smart and responsible course is passing one comprehensive bill that deals once and for all with these issues. This is the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. Sensible immigration policies will ensure America remains a beacon of hope and opportunity.”

White House Legislation

As we reported last time, the President, in a speech in Las Vegas on January 29, released his principles for immigration reform and made clear that, should the Senate fail to introduce legislation soon, he would send his own bill to Congress.

On February 17, portions of legislation being drafted by the administration were leaked to USA Today. While the release of the draft caused a stir in Washington, there was nothing to be surprised about. The President said he would introduce legislation if the Senate failed to act, so it makes sense that legislation is being drafted now, in case it is needed. What was leaked was incomplete and in draft form. (For a quick summary, see this blog post from Immigration Impact.) As of now, the Senate is still expected to produce its own legislation in the coming weeks.

Support Builds for Immigration Reform

During the Senate hearing on immigration reform, Senator Sessions (R-Ala.) complained that the White House has been meeting with “interest groups,” but he was not aware there were any representatives of “the American people.”

Public Support for Reform
Well, there is good news for Senator Sessions, because two recent polls have shown strong support for immigration reform along the lines of the principles of the bipartisan group of Senators. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted late in January and early February found that approval for President Obama’s handling of immigration is at an all-time high. The same poll found that a majority, 55%, favor a path to citizenship for the undocumented. A Quinnipiac poll conducted during the same time frame produced similar results—56% of adults believed that undocumented immigrants “should be allowed to stay in the United States and to eventually apply for US citizenship.” By contrast, only 10% believed that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay and never become citizens.

Bibles, Badges and Business for Reform
Meanwhile, a variety of new voices are being raised in support of immigration reform. Conservative evangelical Christians, law enforcement and businesses (Bibles, Badges and Business) have been meeting with Republican members of Congress to push for immigration reform. During the House immigration reform hearing, Chairman Goodlatte seemed surprised when Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Immigration Subcommittee, introduced into the hearing record an op-ed from the Washington Times by Matthew Staver, Dean of Liberty University Law School, which is in Rep. Goodlatte’s district. Staver wrote in his op-ed that for him, “establishing a challenging but achievable path to citizenship is key.” Liberty University was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and is often on the itinerary of Republican presidential hopefuls.

Former Officials form Task Force
On February 11, the Bipartisan Policy Center launched a high-level task force on immigration, which will be co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, and former governors Haley Barber (Mississippi) and Ed Rendell (Pennsylvania). According to this release announcing the task force, the task force “will develop and advocate for consensus recommendations to guide national immigration policy.” The task force will be directed by Rebecca Tallent, who was Sen. John McCain’s point person on immigration when the Senate considered the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill. She had also been a staffer for former Congressman Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), another key ally in the immigration reform effort.

There will be more hearings in the coming weeks. Some say an immigration bill could be introduced in the Senate by the end of March. There are many details to be worked out between now and then.

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