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Stalemate: The 110th Congress

October 15, 2008 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

It ain’t over until the new Congress comes in, but the 110th Congress has recessed until after the election.  The House is not scheduled to convene again until January, but it may convene in a lame duck session after the election.  The Senate will come back after the election to deal with some public land bills.

In the immigration policy arena, this Congress had little to show for its efforts.  It could have been worse.

At the beginning of this session in January, restrictionist members of Congress were coming off their victory of last year, having blocked immigration reform.  In the House, there was the SAVE Act, introduced by Democrat Heath Shuler (NC).  The bill would have mandated the nation-wide use of what is now called E-Verify—the government’s electronic worker verification system.  Republicans filed a discharge petition early this year.  The signatures of 217 Members of the House would have forced the bill to bypass committee consideration and go directly to the floor for a vote.

Forcing a vote on this enforcement-only measure would have been a problem for the Democratic contenders for President, all of whom supported comprehensive immigration reform.  House leadership saw the problem, and began the normal order consideration of the issue of electronic worker verification and the SAVE Act.  They held hearings, which provided an opportunity for opponents of mandatory worker verification to raise a lot of questions about the verification systems being contemplated.  The hearings also provided an opportunity for new allies to join the opposition.  Advocates for Social Security, for one, raised their concerns about the additional burden that implementation of a nationwide worker verification system would place on the already over-burdened Social Security Administration.

Although it picked up 186 signatures in its first month, the discharge petition for the SAVE act gained only 4 additional signatures by the end of the session.

The rest of the session was marked by continued pressure for reform coming from various constituencies, and a slow realization that constituencies will have to work together on a broader agenda if they want to advance their own goals.

For example, there were efforts to raise the cap on H-1B temporary work visas for high-skilled immigrants.  The cap is now so inadequate to meet the demand that applications are chosen by lottery.  However, members of Congress advocating for broader reforms vowed to block movement on business-related visas unless there were also provisions for the undocumented and family members.

The need for reform was reinforced in a number of hearings held by the House Immigration Subcommittee.  Most recently, on September 23, there was a hearing on the Executive Office of Immigration Review.  Committee members considered the issue of ideological bias in the hiring of immigration judges during Attorney General Gonzalez’s tenure; inconsistency between judges in asylum decisions; criticism of the immigration courts by federal appellate judges; a shortage of immigration judges and the escalating workload resulting from increased immigration enforcement actions.

There were a number of positive bills introduced in this session of Congress, mainly bills that would provide modest patches to the broken immigration system.

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