Let The Senate Immigration Debate Begin
May 12, 2006
Washington, DC – The following is a statement by Frank Sharry, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy organization based in Washington DC.
On Thursday morning Senator Harry Reid and Senator Bill Frist walked onto the Senate floor and announced that the Senate will debate immigration reform beginning next week. In brokering a set of process agreements, both leaders overcame partisan pressures in an election year and resistance from within the ranks of their respective caucuses. They deserve enormous credit for displaying bipartisan cooperation and political courage, the two qualities most desperately needed to enact workable comprehensive immigration reform.
As a result, Act II of the Senate immigration reform debate is about to begin. When we last left off, Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Mel Martinez (R-FL) had offered a “compromise” on both the legalization and temporary worker provisions of the Judiciary Committee bill. They said the deal was fair enough to garner the support of well over sixty members of the United States Senate, and unite many Senate Republicans and Democrats in a way that few issues have in recent memory.
The Hagel-Martinez compromise includes the right architecture for real immigration reform. It would reunite close family members separated by interminable backlogs in immigrant visas; allow businesses in key industries to hire legal foreign workers when no U.S. worker is available for the job; give undocumented students the same chance at a college education as their classmates; stabilize the agricultural workforce in this country; and deal with millions of undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. not through mass deportation, but registration and vetting to get on a path to legal permanent status over time. Unfortunately, the compromise also adopted the enforcement provisions from the Senate Judiciary Committee bill, many of which were derived from the House-passed legislation and are of grave concern.
As long-time advocates for immigrants navigating the complex waters of visas, green cards, and citizenship, we believe that some changes are needed to the Hagel-Martinez bill in order to make the earned legalization program work. For example, if expanded document fraud penalties in Title II are applied to immigrants who would otherwise be eligible for legal status under the bill, it could gut the intent of the legalization component. And a handful of provisions in the Deferred Mandatory Departure program (for immigrants with between two and five years’ presence in the United States) will have to be altered to encourage people to come forward and apply for the program in the first place. Finally, between 1 and 2 million undocumented immigrants will be left out because of the bill’s January 2004 cut-off date. Unless these issues are addressed, the promise of a broad legalization program that brings immigrant workers and families out of the shadows and under the rule of law will not be fulfilled.
In addition, a number of the “Title II” enforcement provisions are unnecessarily harsh and overly broad. Unfortunately, we have seen over the years how provisions sold as means to protect the public from bad actors end up hurting the most vulnerable or deserving among us, including asylum-seekers and long-term legal permanent residents. Immigrant communities are still reeling from the consequences of the 1996 immigration laws, which lead to a dramatic increase in deportations of even long-term legal permanent residents, with no ability for a judge to step in and make an exception even in extreme situations. While we would prefer to fix each provision in Title II that goes overboard, at a bare minimum we believe the Senate should provide DHS and immigration judges with the discretion to waive some of these extreme penalties for certain immigrants who merit special consideration. This would not alleviate our concerns about Title II, but it would restore a modicum of fairness to an immigration enforcement system that is badly in need of some checks and balances.
The Senate is facing an historic crossroads. With the leadership of a key bipartisan group of Senate visionaries, including the authors of the original immigration reform bill, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), the Senate is closer than ever to setting partisan politics aside and delivering on vital reforms that the country needs. There is no doubt that the road ahead is challenging and that the prospects for a bill becoming law this year are uncertain. But with a broad coalition of senators from both parties, supported by a broad coalition of interest groups from across the political spectrum, we can at least begin to visualize success. We pledge to work with the Senate to enact a good bill.