At Outset of Congressional Summer Vacation, Signs of Life on Immigration Reform
August 02, 2008
Washington, DC – The following is a statement by Mary Giovagnoli, Policy and Advocacy Director for the National Immigration Forum, a non-partisan, pro-immigrant advocacy organization.
Congress leaves Washington today for about a month of vacation, campaigning, and conventions. But before they left, a little progress was made on fixing discrete parts of our broken immigration system that is worth highlighting.
A five year reauthorization of the E-Verify electronic employment verification system overwhelming passed the House (407 to 2; H.R. 6633) on Thursday. Importantly, the bill included further study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to assess the impact of E-Verify’s data errors on small businesses and individuals. The bill also included critical protections for the Social Security Administration, so that E-Verify does not adversely affect its ability to accomplish its important mission. And finally, efforts to exponentially expand the unreliable E-Verify system to all workers and all employers in the United States have been rejected, so far.
By reauthorizing E-Verify for only five years, the House sent a clear message that it was not ready to whole-heartedly embrace the program. As hearing after hearing showed during the spring and summer, the consequences of a mandatory electronic employment verification system for all American workers could be devastating. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who, like us, is skeptical of E-Verify in the absence of data error safeguards and broader immigration reform, had it just right when she told Congressional Quarterly, “Sometimes, you do the best you can with the cards you’ve been dealt…We were running out of time. E-Verify was due to expire. I wanted to make some adjustments to the program . . . and just because we reauthorized it for five years doesn’t mean we can’t start working it immediately (July 31, 2008).”
This is a very encouraging sign.
Another encouraging sign comes from the House Immigration Subcommittee, Chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). Her Subcommittee overwhelmingly passed a bill to recapture unused family and employment visas that would normally expire each year under current law. The bill (H.R. 5882) passed the Subcommittee 8 to 1, which demonstrates there is bipartisan support for discrete measures aimed at achieving improvements in our immigration system.
For the hundreds of thousands of people waiting years and often decades for a visa, this is a very good first step. Rep. Lofgren, the Subcommittee members, and the coalition of immigration, family, faith, and business advocates who have gotten this measure this far have done tremendous work.
The House Immigration Subcommittee also reported out a military families immigration bill (H.R. 6020) by a vote of 6 to 3 and the Emergency Nursing Supply Relief Act (H.R. 5924) by a vote of 7 to 2.
This is modest progress, but it gives us a dose of hope that when the House returns in September, Members might seriously address bipartisan, achievable immigration measures in the short run.
Over on the Senate side, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) was joined by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) in introducing the Visa Efficiency and E-Verify Extension Act (S. 3414). This measure would reauthorize a number of immigration programs expiring this year, including reauthorizing E-Verify for a limited time. The bill would also recapture unused visas for close family members and employers from year to year, require studies of the problems with E-Verify, and include measures to protect Social Security against drains caused by E-Verify.
In addition, the Senate passed legislation to extend the time period that elderly and disabled refugees, asylum seekers, and certain other immigrants can receive benefits under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. The time limit was extended from seven to nine years. The measure goes back to the House for what we hope will be quick approval.
Taken together, these modest proposals demonstrate that the 110th Congress has the power to lay the groundwork for genuine immigration reform in the 111th Congress. Diverse communities of interest – faith groups, labor, business, and the pro-immigrant community – are beginning to see that working together, they can bring about small changes today, and bigger changes tomorrow. While these measures fall short of the systematic, top-to-bottom fixes we all know our immigration system needs, they are signs of progress that should be celebrated.
We hope our elected leaders return to Washington rested and ready to make even more progress on these and other helpful immigration measures.