National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America


Senate Judiciary Committee Examines Immigration Reform Proposals

July 26, 2005

Washington, DCToday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on comprehensive immigration reform.  Among the topics discussed were competing pieces of legislation to reform our broken immigration system, including a measure, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 (S. 1033/H.R. 2330), sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Lieberman (D-CT), and Ken Salazar (D-CO).  The other piece of legislation, the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act of 2005 (S. 1438), is sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ). The following is a statement by Angela Kelley, Deputy Director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based pro-immigrant advocacy organization.

We thank Chairman Arlen Specter and the members of the Judiciary Committee for giving our broken immigration system the attention it deserves.  This hearing was a necessary step towards solving the problem of dysfunctional border, security, and immigration policies.  While we know there are other pressing matters before the Committee, we applaud Sen. Specter’s enthusiasm for examining this important issue and his statements indicating support for moving a bill forward this year.

The immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed.  The evidence is all around us in exploited workers, deaths in the desert, divided families, criminal smugglers, fake documents, community tensions, and public frustration. 

The American people are right to demand that our immigration laws be fixed once and for all.  In fact, the leadership and efforts of this Committee may be the best chance in a generation to get reform done, and get it done right. 

At first blush, the Secure America Act and the Cornyn/Kyl bill share many of the same basic components: combining interior and workplace enforcement, border security, a worker verification system, and temporary work visas for immigrants coming in the future.  Deeper examination reveals key differences in the bills that must be understood and reconciled for reform to be effective and sustained.

A threshold issue is the treatment of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country and whether they are enticed to come out of the shadows or are driven farther underground by unrealistic or heavy handed measures.  The Secure America Act provides a realistic incentive structure to make legality the prevailing norm in our immigration system. It provides a clear path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here that is neither an automatic amnesty, nor the automatic deportation, fines, and vague paths to legal status in the Cornyn/Kyl bill.  Unless immigrants know they can build permanent, stable futures in the U.S., millions of currently undocumented immigrants will not choose to report themselves to authorities for eventual deportation.  This will perpetuate the black market of illegal immigration, undocumented immigrants, and those that prey on them.

Effective legislation must also recognize the importance of circularity and citizenship.  On the one hand, we should encourage and assist those who want to return to their home countries to do so.  On the other hand, we should recognize that many immigrants will follow the time-honored tradition of settling in America.  Those who do should be encouraged and assisted to become full members of the nation’s family and take on the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The Cornyn/Kyl temporary worker program offers two years of work in the U.S. followed by a year of return.  Arguably, their formula may achieve circularity, but fails to include a commitment to citizenship, the cornerstone of America’s immigration experience.

Evaluating whether legislation will be effective must also consider the important role of family immigration and not assume a zero-sum contest between employment-based immigration and family-based immigration.  Effective legislation will recognize that both work and family are what drive migration.  Only by reforming both channels at the same time, and in a balanced fashion, can we set realistic limits that are enforceable. The Cornyn/Kyl legislation ignores the outdated and over subscribed family immigration system we currently have that separates families for decades. In contrast, the Secure America bill overhauls the family immigration system, placing an appropriate emphasis on reunifying spouses and children. 

By its nature, effective comprehensive reform recognizes that the best way to help both immigrant workers and native-born workers is to eliminate the lack of legal immigration status which undermines the wages and working conditions of all.  In addition to putting undocumented immigrants on the path to legal status, Secure America provides meaningful labor protections so that the abuse and exploitation of previous temporary worker plans will not be repeated.

In short, the bipartisan Secure America Act is the only proposal currently on the table that can work.  It will result in both better treatment of immigrant workers and families and a more controlled immigration system.  Secure America changes all of the incentives so that smugglers, abusive employers, and fake document merchants are deprived of their markets, while hardworking immigrant families, law abiding employers, and local communities are given realistic and orderly processes to follow.

By including counterproductive policies in their rival legislation, or by ignoring important reform components, Senators Cornyn and Kyl have fallen into the trap of appealing to what they perceive their conservative constituencies want, but ultimately offering something will not fix the problem they diagnose.  Heavy handed enforcement measures may sell well politically to certain groups, but could lead to less control and less security if enacted.

As soon as possible after Congress returns in the fall, Chairman Specter and his colleagues should turn their attention back to comprehensive immigration reform. The policies are complicated, the politics often contentious, but repairs to our broken system cannot wait for a future Congress.

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