National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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Policy Update: Congress Leaves Washington, but not the Immigration Debate

August 08, 2013 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

During Congressional Recess, Constituents Press for Reform

Members of Congress will be hearing from constituents who want them to act on immigration reform—not just at town hall meetings that members traditionally hold during August, but also from hundreds of other events planned during the month. The events will show support for reform from a variety of constituencies. House members will be hearing not just from immigrant advocates, but from evangelical leaders, conservative political action groups, leaders in the tech community, the coalition of faith, law enforcement and business leaders included in the Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform Network, labor unions and many others.

Find an event near you here or here.

The outcome of immigration reform in the coming months will depend on the outcome of the internal struggle within the Republican Party. In general, the fight is between those concerned with the long-term viability of the party as a national party, and those who are more concerned with a challenge from their right in a congressional district that has been gerrymandered to preclude the necessity of appealing broadly to a diverse electorate. As one Republican strategist said in this article about the problem, “We will not be a national governing party for a long, long time if we turn our backs on this chance to pass immigration reform. It's just that simple.”

That internal struggle bubbled to the surface in July when Republican leaders denounced remarks by a leader of the anti-reform contingent in the House. Speaking of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by their parents (the subject of the House hearing mentioned below), Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told the conservative Web site Newsmax, “For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."

The involvement of many conservative constituencies in pro-reform events planned for August will strengthen the hand of conservative Republicans who nevertheless are supportive of immigration reform or can be persuaded to support reform.

Public Support for Path to Citizenship Remains Strong

Despite the fact that support among members of Congress for reform with a path to citizenship is still up in the air, support for a path to citizenship is not in question among the public at large. Public opinion has been queried dozens of times since this past spring, and polls continue to show broad support for the path to citizenship. This document from the Forum summarizing nearly three dozen public opinion polls, extracts responses to questions asked of respondents about their feelings towards a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Support ranges from a bare majority to overwhelming majority, often depending on how much detail is in the question. When the question includes a description that resembles what is contained in the Senate bill, support tends to be higher.

House Adjourns for Recess without an Immigration Resolution

Congress has left Washington for the month of August and will not return until September 9. The House left without resolving its approach to immigration reform. Thus far, the House has rejected the Senate approach of reforming the various interconnected pieces of the broken immigration system in one bill. Instead, it has put forward bills focusing on small parts of the problem. In order to become law, these pieces would have to be packaged together, so that the House would have something to go to conference with the Senate’s comprehensive bill.

Thus far, the following bills have passed through the House’s Judiciary Committee.

The Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act (H.R. 2278) would: grant to states and localities the authority to enforce immigration laws as they see fit; expand grounds of inadmissibility and removability on terrorism- and criminal-related grounds criminalize unlawful presences and mandate criminal penalties for illegal entry or unlawful presence and make immigration enforcement much more harsh in a number of ways. That bill passed the Judiciary Committee in a party-line vote on June 18.

The Agricultural Guestworker Act (H.R. 1773) would replace the current H-2A temporary agricultural worker program with a different guestworker visa (H-2C) that would have fewer protections for agricultural workers. It does not provide for the legalization of the current (largely undocumented) agricultural workforce. That bill passed the Judiciary Committee in a party-line vote on June 19.

The Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772) would mandate the use of an electronic worker verification system for all employers. That bill passed the Judiciary Committee in a party-line vote on June 26.

The Supplying Knowledge-based Immigrants and Lifting Levels of STEM Visas Act (H.R. 2131) would increase the number of employment-based immigrant visas for those with particular skills, while decreasing the number of family-based immigrant visas by eliminating the category reserved for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens. The bill would also eliminate the diversity lottery visa program and increase the number of annual visas for the H-1B non-immigrant visa program. That bill passed in a mostly party-line vote on June 27. (One Republican joined with all of the Committee’s Democrats in voting against the bill.)

Shortly before the recess, the Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing on the topic of providing legalization for some young people brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents. Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte is reported to be working on legislation tentatively called the Kids Act to deal with this subpopulation of the undocumented. The idea did not receive an enthusiastic reception, including from persons who would potentially benefit from such legislation. (Rosa Velazquez, a member of the United We Dream National Coordinating Committee, testified at the hearing, saying that United We Dream “is committed to winning citizenship for our families and communities,” and “will not accept proposals that leave our parents behind….”)

The common themes among the House Judiciary Committee bills thus far is 1) they each deal in isolation with a small part of the overall immigration problem and 2) unlike the Senate’s bipartisan approach, the Committee’s bills have passed without bipartisan support.

Back in May, the House Homeland Security Committee passed the Border Security Results Act (H.R. 1417). This legislation would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a strategy and implementation plan for achieving "situational awareness" and "operational control" of the borders. (These terms are specified in the bill.) The bill would let the Department develop a rational plan for border enforcement, in contrast to the Senate bill, which would double border patrol and require very specific deployment of monitoring technology and fencing (whether or not these resources can be deployed effectively). In contrast to the Judiciary Committee bills, H.R. 1417 passed the Homeland Security Committee unanimously by voice vote.

None of these bills have been brought to the floor of the House. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), speaking at a town hall meeting in Wisconsin, is reported to have told the audience that, tentatively, these bills and other related bills (including a legalization bill) will be taken up in October.

Spending Levels for Fiscal 2014 yet to be Resolved

When Congress returns from August recess, there will be nine legislative days in September, the last month of the government’s fiscal year. Thus far, no spending bills have gone through both chambers to a final resolution.

The House has passed an appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Some of the immigration-related spending in that bill:

  • $10.6 billion is allocated for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), $35 million above the amount requested by the president. This includes $3.8 billion for border security and funding for 21,370 Border Patrol agents.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) gets $5.3 billion in the House bill, $387.6 million more than requested by the president. This includes $168.5 million above the requested amount for detention, to maintain detention bed spaces at 34,000. $43.6 million are appropriated to restore the 287(g) program. Secure Communities would get an extra $4.9 million more than requested and $24 million is added to the request for alternatives to detention.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) would get $114.2 million, all of it for E-Verify. (Most USCIS funding is fee generated, not appropriated by Congress.)

The House bill also includes an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that would prohibit spending to implement categorical discretion regarding immigration enforcement—for example, the DACA program for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

In the Senate, the DHS appropriations bill has passed out of the Homeland Security Committee. Immigration-related spending in that bill:

  • There is $10.4 billion for CBP, $.4 million less than the president’s request. $3.7 billion is included for Border Patrol, funding for 21,370 agents.
  • ICE would get $5.05 billion in the Senate bill, $57 million more than the president’s request. In the Senate bill, the 287(g) program would get $5.4 million. $1.88 billion would be allocated for detention at a level of 31,800 detention beds, $41 million more than the president’s request. Alternatives to detention would get $23.7 million more than the president requested.
  • USCIS would get $113.9 million for E-Verify and $5 million for immigrant integration grants.

The Senate DHS Appropriations bill has yet to make it to the floor. Should there be no agreement on these and other spending bills by the end of the September, the government will run out of funding to operate.

DHS Leadership – Many Boxes to be Filled

The organizational chart for the Department of Homeland Security currently has many empty or soon-to-be empty boxes for the leadership positions of the Department’s functions relating to immigration. Starting at the top, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano will be leaving her post in early September to begin her new job as President of the University of California system.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton left his post at the end of July. A replacement has not been nominated.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has had no Commissioner for some time, but on August 1, President Obama nominated R. Gil Kerlikowske to be Commissioner of CBP. Mr. Kerlikowske has served as the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (also known as the “drug czar”). Prior to that, Mr. Kerlikowske was the Seattle police chief.

On June 27, President Obama nominated Alejandro Mayorkas to be Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Mayorkas is currently the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Senate held a confirmation hearing just prior to leaving for the August recess, but the Judiciary Committee has not yet approved his nomination. No replacement has been nominated for USCIS Director.

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