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The Slow March of Comprehensive Immigration Reform

April 3, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

By far, the most commonly searched for term on OpenCongress is “Immigration.” It is searched for nearly twice as often as the next most common search term, “Obama,” and more than three times more often than “Iraq.” Despite all of the interest, Congress has been slow to move on immigration legislation. Here’s an overview of where things stand on this issue right now:

As they have on almost every other major issue so far, the House of Representatives is moving more quickly on a comprehensive immigration bill than the Senate. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced their immigration bill, H.R.1645, on March, 22. By moving forward quickly in the House, they are hoping they can “jump-start the Senate a little.”

Kennedy, McCain, and Senate Legislation

The Senate may need a jump-start. On the same day the House bill was introduced, the New York Times reported that the chances of the Senate uniting around a bill and passing it any time this year were doubtful. The Senate was banking on Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) who had been planning on reviving a bill that the Senate passed in the 109th Congress, as a starting point for negotiations this year. But, McCain has backed out. The Times attributes McCain’s backing-out to “presidential politics,” and says that he is trying to quell “a barrage of criticism from conservatives who oppose his support of the legalization of illegal immigrants.”

McCain is still hoping to co-sponsor a different, new piece of legislation with Kennedy, but he is also working with Republicans on an immigration bill. “We’re trying to get outlines for an agreement among the White House and Republicans, and then we’re also at the same time continuing to discuss the issue with Sen. Kennedy,” he said.

Kennedy is still hoping to bring forward last year’s bill if he and McCain cannot come to an agreement on a new one. However, with the House bill and a recent White House proposal representing the trend of moving to the right on immigration legislation , the odds of his bill finding crucial Republican support, are looking less and less likely.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has slated a Senate immigration debate for the end of May. At this point, it is still unclear which bill will be debated The House debate of the Flake-Guttierez bill will take place later, in July, even though they were faster bringing the bill to completion. The provisions from the White House proposal and the House bill foretell some of the issues that will be taken up in the Senate debate and amendment process.

White House Proposals

On March 29, the White House issued a “discussion document” outlining what the President hopes the immigration legislation will look like. Any of these provisions could be added as an amendment to the bills as they are debated in the House and Senate:

Merit-based green cards – Applicants for citizenship, whether they are temporary workers, illegal immigrants, or overseas, would have to present portfolios. They would be awarded “points” based on things like English proficiency, employer recommendations, education level, home ownership, children’s school success, etc. In the words of Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the process would ask applicants, “what do you have to offer that meets the needs of our country?”

Application Fees – Temporary workers would have to pay $2,000 every three years. Additionally, Workers in a path to citizenship program would have to pay $2,000 for their application to be processed and $8,000 if it is approved.

Guestworkers’ Families – Families of guestworkers would not be allowed to enter the country. The Flake-Gutierrez House bill allows families to enter if it can be shown that they will be able to be supported. Flake said, "that doesn’t mean that everybody will be able to bring their family, but it doesn’t mean that everybody will be denied that opportunity. "It’s decided on the basis of, ‘Can you support your family here?’ "

Flake-Gutierrez Bill

Of course, the Flake-Gutierrez bill has many provisions beyond the White House recommendations. Flake lists the bill’s major components as “border security, interior enforcement, a mechanism for foreign workers to enter the country legally, and no amnesty for illegal immigrants.” Any of them could be altered, added-to, or struck-out by amendments. Here are some that controversial ones:

Touchback – Illegal immigrants would be allowed to be part of a patch towards citizenship program, but only if they first returned home and applied to re-enter legally. If an entire family were here illegally, only one member would be required to “touchback,” and when they re-entered, the entire family would be legal. The entire process could take as few as one or two days.

Elevated H-1B Cap – H-1B’s are work visas for highly skilled foreign workers. In 2004, the total allotment of H-1B’s fell from 195,000 to 65,000, greatly reducing high-tech employers’ abilities to hire skilled foreign work. This year, more than 65,000 H-1B applications were received on April, 2 — the first day that the applications were accepted. The bill would raise the H-1B cap to 180,000 annually.

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