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Policy Update: Congressional Developments for April 2011

April 27, 2011 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Congress is still in the midst of a two-week spring recess (or, as they like to call it, “District Work Period”).  Here is a roundup of policy developments from this month.

Hearings in Congress

The Immigration Subcommittee in the House has continued its series of hearings to portray immigrants and immigration in a bad light.

  • For a March 31 hearing, “H-1B Visas: Designing a Program to Meet the Needs of the U.S. Economy and U.S. Workers,” the Forum’s statement pointed out that there is an inadequate supply of immigrant visas in the employment immigration system, and what is really needed is for Congress to update the employment-based immigration system as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

  • An April 5th hearing focused on elimination of the Diversity Lottery visa program, as proposed in H.R. 704, the “SAFE for America Act.”  While it would eliminate visas for the diversity lottery, the Act would not reallocate those visas to relieve backlogs in other categories of immigration.  This is the second time this issue has arisen in this Congress, the first time being as an amendment to H.R. 1 (the House’s introduced version of the FY11 Continuing Resolution).  This is a proposal to reduce legal immigration, and as we pointed out in our statement, by proposing to reduce legal immigration, Congress would create incentives to increase illegal immigration.

  • The last hearing, on April 13th focused on the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program.  Instead of focusing solely on the temporary worker program, Congress should pass AgJOBS, introduced in the last several congresses, to stabilize the agricultural work force.  (See our statement here.)

Meanwhile, there were dueling hearings on Muslims in America.  Peter King (R-NY), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, held a hearing on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response.”  As we noted in our statement, this hearing continued on the theme being pursued by House leaders of pitting one group of Americans against another.  Meanwhile, in the Senate, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, held a hearing on “Protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims.”  In part, as Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said, the hearing was called out of concern about the rise of hate groups, and the fact that “some leaders have sought to sow fear and divisiveness against American Muslims.”

Legislation Introduced in Congress

Attack on the American Citizenship Clause: On April 5th, Senators David Vitter (R-LA), Ron Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced a bill that would limit birthright citizenship to children born in the U.S. to at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen, legal resident alien or active member of the military.  Although the 14th Amendment of our Constitution guarantees citizenship to persons born in the U.S., Vitter’s bill proposes only to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to limit citizenship.  Vitter’s bill is unlikely to move in the Senate.  For more information on this issue, see Americans for Constitutional Citizenship, led by the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights.

For Some Politicians, the Sky is the Limit on Border Spending:  On a day when debate on the Senate floor was dominated by government spending and government debt, the two Senators from Arizona, John McCain (R) and Jon Kyl (R), introduced a border security bill that would require a whole lot more spending on border security.  The Border Security Enforcement Act of 2011, according to a statement on Senator Kyl’s Web site, would require the deployment of at least 6,000 National Guard troops on the U.S. Mexican border; the deployment of 5,000 more Border Patrol agents to the border; more funding for Operation Streamline, Operation Stonegarden, the Southwest Border Prosecutors Initiative, double-layer fencing, and mobile surveillance, aerial surveillance and various infrastructure improvements.  

A companion bill (H.R. 1507) has been introduced in the House by Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) who, a few years ago, was a champion of comprehensive immigration reform.

Senator Kyl, in his statement, asks, “shouldn’t the government be working to completely secure the border?”  Over in the House, Representative Ed Royce has introduced the “Keeping the Pledge on Immigration Act of 2011.”  That bill (co-sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith and three other members) would similarly require deployment of the National Guard, until the Secretary of DHS certifies that the government has achieved “operational control” of the border.  The bill defines “operational control” by referencing the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which defines the concept as the prevention of all unlawful entries.  Cost-wise, the prevention of all illegal entries would be prohibitively expensive. Read more about the policy and politics in this blog post from the Forum.  We have also produced a new paper with a helpful explanation of how operational control is looked at in Congress, using the unattainable definition in the Secure Fence Act, versus the Border Patrol’s more practical approach based on risk analysis.  You can download that paper and others from our list of backgrounders on our Web site.

Other Bills: Representative Mike Honda (D-CA) introduced the Strengthen and Unite Communities through Civics Education and English Development (SUCCEED) Act.  The legislation will provide resources to increase capacity to teach America’s newcomers English and help them prepare for citizenship.  It provides for more coordination at the federal level for immigrant integration policies, and it provides assistance to states for their efforts to integrate their immigrant populations. For more information, see this release on Rep. Honda’s Web site.

Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) reintroduced the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (S. 656, co-sponsored by seven other Senators), which would allow Liberians who had been granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the 1990s to apply for permanent residency.  Liberians in the U.S. while civil war was waged in their country gained TPS in the 1990s and have had TPS or another form of relief from deportation extended since then. “Deferred Enforced Departure” (the relief currently granted Liberian refugees) expires on September 30, 2011.  Senator Reed first introduced his bill in 1999, and in every subsequent Congress.  For more information, see this release from Senator Reed’s office.

On April 14th, Representative Jerrold Nadler (with 112 co-sponsors) reintroduced the Uniting American Families Act (H.R. 1537).  This bill would allow gays and lesbian citizens to sponsor their permanent partners for U.S. residency.  For more information, see this release from Rep. Nadler’s office.  

On April 12, Representative Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced the Domestic Refugee Resettlement Reform and Modernization Act of 2011 (H.R. 1475).  This bill would revise the way the federal government provides funding to states and local resettlement organizations to ensure communities and refugees receive appropriate levels of assistance when refugees are resettled.

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