National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America


Senate Prepares to Debate Comprehensive Immigration Reform

October 26, 2005

Washington, DC -- On Tuesday, October 25, 2005, Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) introduced a substantive and serious comprehensive immigration reform package.  On the same day, Majority Leader Frist (R-TN), accompanied by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and John Cornyn (R-TX), announced that the Senate will take up immigration reform in February of next year.  Last week, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, held the Committee’s second hearing this year on comprehensive immigration reform.  At the hearing and in subsequent remarks, President Bush, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff reiterated the Administration’s broad immigration reform principles, and reiterated that an enforcement-only approach will not work to fix our broken immigration system.  The following is a statement on these developments by Frank Sharry, the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum.

To fix our dysfunctional immigration system, immigration reform legislation has to be bipartisan in its formulation, comprehensive in its approach, and workable once fully implemented.  We are encouraged that the Senate appears headed in this direction.  Senator Frist has promised full consideration of broad, comprehensive reforms.  The debate in the Senate is likely to be much more reasonable and realistic than the political posturing and unworkable policy proposals expected from House leaders in the coming weeks.

As the Hagel bill underscores, enforcement only is not enough.  To bring immigration out of the black market and under the rule of law, we have to augment enhanced enforcement with enhanced legal channels for future immigrants – workers and families – and for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here.  If we do not deal realistically with the 11 million, we will not have solved the problem.

The Hagel bill strikes a thoughtful balance between expanded enforcement and expanded legality.  The package includes robust enforcement with expanded border enforcement that integrates professional law enforcement and state of the art technology; a worker verification system that will make it virtually impossible for employers to hire those in the country illegally; and tough sanctions on those employers who go around the verification system in an illegal attempt to undercut workers and competitors.  It combines these measures with provisions that accelerate the reunification of spouses and minor children; widens legal channels for future workers to meet our legitimate labor market demands; and creates a process for the 11 million immigrants currently working and living in the U.S. illegally to get on the path to legal status and eventual permanent residence.

This is a serious bill that includes most of the key elements.  However, as we study the package, we have some initial concerns.  For example, we are troubled by the requirement that those here less than five years must return to their home country before re-entering on temporary visas.  While this is more workable than either the legislation introduced by Senators Cornyn and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) or the proposal outlined by the Bush Administration, it raises the possibility that millions of those here illegally will opt to remain in the shadows rather than risk coming forward for an uncertain registration and return program.  The Cornyn-Kyl “report to deport” approach assumes that the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. will voluntarily deport themselves within five years.  The President’s proposal would require these 11 million people to report to deport within six years, and neither of these proposals allows temporary workers to seek citizenship.  We much prefer the approach proposed in the Secure America Act introduced by Senators McCain and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), which puts undocumented immigrants into a multi-step process in which they pay fines, wait in line, clear up taxes, and study English before becoming eligible for permanent residence.  But it does not force them to leave the country to re-apply for entry.

In order to prepare for the Senate floor debate in February of next year, we are hopeful that the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Senator Arlen Specter, will follow through on his commitment to move forward on this urgent issue as soon as possible.  We are very confident that his commitment to workable reform and his able leadership of the Judiciary Committee will enable Senators of good will to come together and fuse the best ideas in order to get the details right.  The details matter a great deal.  We not only have to get this done; we have to get it done right.


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