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The Do-Nothing Congress Heads Home

September 27, 2012 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

At the end of last week, the House and the Senate adjourned until after the election, making this one of the earliest adjournments prior to an election since 1960. In one of its last non-accomplishments before adjournment, the House considered an immigration bill—a bill to increase visas for STEM graduates—and failed to pass it. (More on that below.)

According to the New York Times, the 112th Congress passed 173 laws as of last month. By comparison, the 80th Congress, the Congress that President Harry Truman dubbed the “do-nothing Congress,” looks positively productive, passing 906 laws in its two years. To be fair, it is likely additional legislation will pass in a lame duck session after the November elections. Still not resolved are, among other things, income and payroll tax cuts that are slated to expire at the end of the year and steep, across-the-board budget cuts to defense and domestic programs that have been triggered by Congress’ failure to come up with a package of revenue increases and budget cuts to reduce the deficit. (The combination of the expiration of tax cuts and budget cuts are popularly called the “fiscal cliff.”) There is also the farm bill, the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, a bill to save the U.S. Postal Service from default, and the list goes on. (Here is another evaluation of the 112th Congress, with charts and graphs.)

Continuing Resolution will keep Government Running through March

September 30 is the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. By that date, Congress should have wrapped up the process of allocating money to fund the various government agencies for the next fiscal year. This year, Congress failed to complete a single appropriations bill. (There are a dozen of them.) Instead, just before leaving town, the House and Senate passed a “continuing resolution,” which will give Congress until late March 2013 to make final decisions on the budgets of federal agencies for the fiscal year that will by then be half-way completed. The continuing resolution continues funding the government at fiscal year 2012 levels (with a minor increase).

Immigration and the Fiscal Cliff

On September 14th, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a report, “OMB Report Pursuant to the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012.” In it, OMB presented its preliminary estimates on the impact of “sequestration,” the automatic across-the-board budget cuts that will be spread out across all agencies on January 3rd, unless Congress comes up with a more rational approach to attain deficit reduction (or decides to postpone tackling the deficit altogether). The automatic cuts were included in the Budget Control Act of 2011 and triggered by the failure of the so-called “super committee” to construct an acceptable alternative deficit reduction plan.

According to these preliminary estimates, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will lose more than $450 million, and Customs and Border Protection will lose more than $800 million. USCIS could lose more than $200 million, most coming from the Examinations Fee Account—that is, fees paid by immigrants to have their applications for naturalization and other benefits processed appear to be fair game for diverting to deficit reduction.

We are told that, with further refinement, the impact of sequestration on what OMB terms “mandatory spending” (in this case, spending out of fee collections, as opposed to appropriated “discretionary spending”) may not be as great as these estimates indicate. More detail will become available in the coming weeks.

House Considers and Fails to Pass STEM Immigration Bill

On September 20, the House considered a bill sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), H.R. 6429, the “STEM Jobs Act of 2012,” that would provide immigrant visas to foreigners who graduate from U.S. universities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and have a job offer in the U.S. in a STEM field. While there is broad bipartisan support to increase immigration levels for persons with education or skills in these fields, the Smith bill contained a controversial provision to eliminate the diversity visa program and reallocate its immigrant visas to STEM graduates. The bill was brought up under special procedures usually reserved for non-controversial bills requiring a two-thirds vote for passage. With the controversial provision, Smith’s bill failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds vote, and the bill became another non-accomplishment of the 112th Congress.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (R-Calif.) introduced a similar bill, H.R. 6412, the “Attracting the Best and the Brightest Act,” which also provided visas for STEM graduates with STEM-related job offers, but did not take away visas from other parts of the immigration system. Lofgren’s bill, which was not considered by the House, also provided minor fixes within the family immigration system and included a provision that would sunset the new visa program after two years. A similar bill was introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) in the Senate, the Benefits to Research and American Innovation through Nationality Statutes Act of 2012 (“BRAINS Act,” S. 3553).

With congress completing its regular season play without accomplishing much of anything in the immigration policy realm, what developments there are continue to come from the agencies, the courts, and the states.

DOJ Completes Investigation of Alamance County, N.C. Sheriff’s Office

On September 18, the Department of Justice announced that it had completed a two-year investigation of the sheriff’s office of Alamance County, North Carolina. In its release, the department said that its investigation found “reasonable cause to believe that [the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office] engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing against Latinos….” To remedy its “egregious pattern of racial profiling,” the department will require the sheriff’s office to commit to “long term structural, cultural and institutional change,” and it will “seek to obtain a court enforceable, comprehensive, written agreement remedying the violations….”

Witnesses interviewed by the Justice Department said, among other things, that the Sheriff told his deputies to arrest motorists who appeared Latino for minor traffic infractions while letting white drivers off with a warning. Latinos were as much as 10 times more likely to be arrested by sheriff deputies than white residents.

In a statement, the Sheriff denied that his office had discriminated against Spanish-speaking persons “in any way, shape or form” and he asserted that the Obama administration was waging “war on local law enforcement.”

In response to the Justice Department’s findings, the Department of Homeland Security announced it is terminating the Alamance County 287(g) jail model agreement, and is restricting the sheriff office’s access to Secure Communities.

TPS for Haitians Extended

On September 21, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services posted a release announcing that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is extending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians who had been in the U.S. since prior to January 12, 2011. Haitians were first granted TPS in the wake of a January 2010 earthquake that made more than one million people homeless. For these Haitians, this will be the second extension of TPS, which would otherwise have expired in January 2013. As of this writing, the official notice with additional information had not been published in the Federal Register.

USCIS Announces Integration Grants

On September 17, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that it was awarding approximately $5 million in grants to 31 immigrant service provider organizations that help immigrants prepare for U.S. citizenship. This year’s grantees are located in 21 states and the District of Columbia.

The agency’s immigrant integration grant program began in 2009 and has provided extra funding to a total of 132 organizations to support their naturalization assistance work. In the past, the program had received funding from Congress. Continued funding for the program is very much up in the air, and it will not be known whether Congress will allocate money for this purpose in the 2013 fiscal year until Congress completes its work on the Department of Homeland Security budget sometime in the spring of 2013. You can find more information and the list of recipients here.

In a related development, on September 24 the Migration Policy Institute announced the winners of its E Pluribus Unum awards, which go to organizations with exceptional immigrant integration initiatives. The three awardees this year each received a $50,000 prize. A Corporate Leadership award went to Citi, a financial institution that, among other things, works with non-profit and public-agency partners to reduce financial barriers to citizenship.

A Little Opportunity for an Engineer

The first handful of requests for deferred action for childhood arrivals have been approved, and one of the first to receive deferred action and a work permit is an engineer from Arizona. Carlos Martinez was nine when he was brought to the U.S. by his family 21 years ago. Since then, he graduated from a Tucson high school with a 3.93 grade-point average, got his B.S. in computer science from the University of Arizona and a master’s degree in software engineering. Unlike most Americans, he did not find opportunity at the end of all that education, because he could not work legally. Instead, he has made money by doing yard work. Thanks to his new work permit, he will be able to start using that education. Read more about this story here.

Courts Allow Show-Me-Your-Papers Provision of Arizona Law to go into Effect

On September 18, Section 2B of Arizona’s S.B. 1070 took effect. That provision requires Arizona law enforcement officers to make a “reasonable attempt” to determine the immigration status of persons they stop, detain or arrest if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is unlawfully present. The implementation of the provision followed a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton on September 5 not to maintain the injunction against Section 2B. Advocates went to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in an emergency effort to reinstate the injunction, but on September 25, the Court rejected the request. Section 2B is now in effect.

The coalition that brought a lawsuit against Section 2B on discrimination grounds is exploring its legal options on the injunction. In the meantime advocates will be monitoring police, and will bring additional complaints if the provision leads to racial profiling by the police.

Arizona Re-affirms no Driver’s License for DACA Recipients

According to the Arizona Republic, the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles has confirmed it will not issue driver’s licenses to recipients of deferred action for childhood arrivals. The decision may end up in court, as civil rights groups have pointed out that, in other situations, the state grants licenses to persons with federal work permits. Recipients of deferred action are given work permits by the federal government.

Summit to Explore Importance of Immigration to Midwest

On October 12, leaders from the business, faith and law enforcement communities in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin will gather in Indianapolis for the Midwest Summit: Forging a New Consensus on Immigrants and America. In the Midwest’s broad-based economy and increasingly diverse population, immigrants are increasingly crucial to the region’s prosperity. The summit will explore topics such as the role of immigrants in the region’s economy, how communities of faith are being shaped by the arrival of immigrants into the region, and how the relationship between immigrant communities and law enforcement affects public safety of the broader community. You can find out more about the Midwest Summit on the event’s registration page.

Follow-Up: Chicago Passes Welcoming City Ordinance

On September 13, the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance that prohibits Chicago law enforcement from holding undocumented immigrants for the federal government except in certain limited circumstances. The “Welcoming City” ordinance, introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as part of his pledge to make Chicago the “world’s most immigrant-friendly city,” makes clear that undocumented immigrants will only be detained and held for federal immigration authorities if there already is a warrant for their arrest, if they have been convicted of a serious crime, or if they are otherwise a threat to public safety. The effort is part of the revolt taking place in cities around the country against Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities program. (The Policy Update previously reported on Chicago’s “Welcoming City” ordinance here.)

Immigration on the Campaign Trail

Last week, President Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, appeared separately at a candidate’s forum in Miami sponsored by the Spanish-Language television network Univision. On September 19, Mitt Romney was pressed for his views on immigration, to which he responded without specifics. Mr. Romney was critical of President Obama for not living up to his promise to fix the immigration system. However, the candidate would not reveal his plan other than to say that he would “put in place an immigration reform system that resolves this issue.” (Read more here.)

President Obama’s appearance at the event the next day gave moderators a chance to challenge him for his failure to keep his promise on comprehensive immigration reform. The president admitted that “my biggest failure so far is that we haven’t gotten comprehensive immigration reform done.” He asserted that, going forward, strong public pressure on Congress could bring about reform. (Read more here.)

Currently, the president has a sizeable lead among Latino voters. A September 17 ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions weekly tracking poll shows the president with a 62% to 20% lead over Romney among Latino registered voters.

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