immigration bills

Bills in Brief

A bit of background

Bush put immigration policy - including tougher enforcement and the creation of a guest worker program - at the top of his second term agenda. But while Congress passed small measures in Spring '05 to stem illegal immigration and okayed a 700 mile fence on the Mexico border in late 2006, lawmakers never managed to get their political chicks in line for large scale reform. It now looks like they won't have the chance again under Bush's term.

In 2006 the House and Senate both passed broad immigration bills - coming from almost opposite directions - but no compromise was ever reached. The House bill focused almost exclusively on stopping the flow of illegals, while the Senate bill included measures to give illegal immigrants (who have been here two plus years) a road to citizenship.

With the shift in power to the Democrats in 2007, a comprehensive immigration bill - which combined enforcement and a path to legalize the undocumented - seemed like it had a glimmer of a chance of making it into law. But a bipartisan bloc in the Senate cobbled together a bill that got derailed in early June; political pressure brought the bill back in late June only to see it tank again.

It's doubtful Congress will touch major immigration reform again until 2010 - if then - although President Obama has said he wants Congress to start formulating a reform bill in '09 (NYT, WP, NYT).

The Senate's 2007 bill

The Senate bill, S 1639 (was S 1348), combined a guest worker plan, enforcement measures, a "z" visa that would allow current illegals to move toward citizenship, and a separate ag worker plan.

What's in the bill:

  • The "trigger." Before any of the new immigration policies go into effect, Homeland Security would first have to radically beef up the borders (including 20,000 new guards, 370 miles of new fencing and the ability to detain 27,500 illegal immigrants any given day) and set up a national employee check system (with 7 million employers verifying their workers' Social Security numbers on a national data base). (WP & WP & WP & WP)

  • Guest workers. Up to 200,000 "guest workers" a year could apply for 2 year work visas, renewable up to three times - with the migrant returning home for a full year in between each stay (WP & WP). Senators okayed an amendment that would "sunset" the guest worker program after 5 years (unless Congress votes at that time to keep the program going). (WP)

  • "Z" workers. Illegal workers already in the US as of January 2007 can apply for legal status, paying a $5,000 fine and $1,500 processing fee, and showing they've been working and not getting arrested. Within 8 years, the head of the house can also return home to apply for permanent residency. But before any new applications are considered, INS would first have to process the 4 million applications already in its in box. (WP)

  • Points. After the current backlog of green card seekers are cleaned up, future applicants will be rated - and get perks - based on a new point system where skills and education count for more.

  • In-sourcing engineers. The compromise would raise the cap on high-tech H-1B visas to 115,000 a year, up from 65,000.

  • Ag visas. Congress Daily is the only one to mention it (and not in depth), but the bill would also give special 3-4 year visas to agricultural workers who could apply for a green card after their stay - and after "touching back" in their home country.

  • No exception for exceptional foreigners. The Senate bill would do away with fast track visas for "aliens of extraordinary abilities," the kind of visas that usually get baseball players, sopranos and nobel laureates easier entree into the country. (WP)

  • First dibs for Americans: Senators voted to include an amendment that would require employers at least try to hire American citizens before new "z" immigrants. (NYT)

  • Other amendments that were approved would make English the national language and would have kept newly legalized immigrants from getting the Earned Income Tax Credit. (WP)

The House bill

The House is far away from taking on immigration. It'll likely wait for the Senate bill to wrap up before tackling reform. If the Senate fails to pass a bill, however, the House may just take a pass on immigration reform altogether.

Although any bill that makes it to the House floor will probably be heavily massaged by politicking and negotiations, the House does have one plan laid out: HR 1645 gives illegal immigrants in the US a chance to move toward legal status and citizenship, with a couple of hurdles:

  • Illegals who have been in the US almost a year can apply to stay in the country after paying a $500 fine and proving that they were working before June 2006.

  • After six years of crime-free living - and learning English - immigrants can apply for permanent status that can lead to citizenship after paying an additional $1,500.

  • Before the process is up, working immigrants would have to "touch back" in their home country - that is, go home at least once.

  • The House is considering limiting family visas to just spouses and children (as opposed to other family members, as the law now permits).

The president's plan

The president also tossed an proposal into the mix - which ended up partly woven into the Senate plan. Some of the president's recommendations:

  • Illegals would have six months to come out of the shadows and apply for temporary work status.

  • Illegals applying for temporary work status would have to pay a $2,000 fine and $1,500 processing fee for a three year visa (which could be renewed for another $3,500 a pop).

  • To get permanent status, immigrants would have to return home to apply and pay a $10,000 fine/fee (in two installments of $2,000 and $8,000 when approved).

On the regulatory front

With immigration legislation stalled, the administration announced plans to attack illegal immigration on its own through the regulation (which doesn't need Congress' okay). But the most controversial action - sending letters to the 140,000 employers whose workers had faulty Social Security numbers saying they could be penalized for employing illegals - got put on hold itself while a judge considers a case brought by the ACLU and labor unions. (WP, WP) The administration may have better luck easing up visas for farm workers, though, as the agricultural industry complains it doesn't have enough hands to harvest its crops. (NYT)

Immigration action before '07

A mixed bag of immigration policies rode into law on the coattails of an Iraq funding bill in '05, including House backed curbs on immigration as well as a Senate measure to loosen limits on seasonal workers. The final version of the bill included:

  • measures to make it harder for immigrants to seek asylum and easier for the US to deport immigrants;

  • standards for states to follow in granting drivers' licenses (aka REAL ID, which many states and civil libertarians rebelled against in 2007 - NYT - forcing the feds to put off implementation until 2011 - WP - and then again until 2016 - WP);

  • funding to beef up borders;

  • a higher ceiling on the number of seasonal workers.

A 2005 House bill on security:

The House bill passed a more far reaching bill in late December 2005 that would (WP):

  • require employers to verify all of their workers are legal through a national database;

  • require border security to hold on to illegal crossers until they can be returned home;

  • expand the grounds for deporting illegals;

  • build a 700 mile fence along about a third of the Mexico/US border,

  • make it a crime to provide assistance for an illegal immigrant NYT,

  • make it a felony to be in the country illegally.

The House bill will have to be meshed with the Senate immigration bill before becoming law.

The Senate's '06 border security and guest worker bill:

A number of proposals on how to create a "guest worker" plan were batted around the Senate in early 2006. The compromise bill that senators landed on - and passed in May '06 - gave most undocumented immigrants a route to citizenship, while adding in a bunch of anti-illegal immigration measures a la the House bill. While never making it into law in '06, the Senate Majority Leader may reintroduce this bill in '07 to force a new vote on immigration reform.

The Senate bill would have:

  • Allow illegal immigrants who have been in the country five years or more to stay and apply for permanent status;

  • Also allow illegal immigrants who have been here for two to five years to apply for permanent status - but only after returning to a "point of entry" to apply;

  • Require illegal immigrants who have been here under two years to return home;

  • Require illegals who are seeking legal status to pay a fine of $3,250,

  • Set up a guest worker program that doles out 200,000 guest worker visas a year, with a separate guest worker system for farm workers, (WP)

  • Beef up surveillance on the borders, including more jail cells for detainees, 1,000 more border agents, a 6,000 National Guard force to support border agents (WP & WP),

  • Require employers check the legal status of new employees using a nationwide database (starting 18 months after Congress sets aside money for the program - WP & NYT), and increase the penalties on employers that hire illegals.

  • Approve funds to double the number of beds at border detention centers - from 19,000 beds to 39,000 (WP) (According to the Washington Post, Homeland Security's inspector general says a total of 54,000 beds would be needed to hold all "dangerous" illegal immigrants.) (WP)

  • Make English the "national language" of the US (mostly thought to be a symbolic gesture, since it wouldn't be changing any existing laws)

  • Build a 370 mile fence along the Mexico border (which is 2000 miles long)

  • Prevent illegal immigrants with one felony or three misdemeanors from getting a work permit

  • Give employees the ability to petition the government for a work permit (Congress Daily),

  • Increase the list of felonies that warrant deportation (including carrying fake documents) and make it harder for immigrants to get access to the courts. (WP)

A number of amendments that were voted on didn't make it into the final bill, including amendments that would:

  • Keep any guest worker plan from starting until the borders were secure. (WP) failed to pass

  • Cut out the guest worker plan. (WP) failed to pass

  • Require that the 200,000 yearly guest workers return home after their guest worker visas run out and not be eligible for citizenship. failed to pass (WP)

  • Require workers' employers be the ones who petition the government for a work permit passed... but then nixed in later amendment... but taken back (okay, we lost track)

Other border securing plans in '06:

While the immigration bill was being fiercely debated, Congress more quietly tacked on $2 billion to an emergency funding bill in June to pay for more security at the border, including $400 million for 6,700 beds at detention centers (or $300 million for 4,000 beds? - WP), $700 million to send the National Guard to help out at the border (6,000 are now there helping out - and funding will likely be continued as part of the '08 budget - Reuters) and $400 million to hire 1,000 border guards.

Congress also approved a 700 mile fence along parts of the Mexico border in September, 2006, but critics say the fence already has problems; it leaves 1,300 miles unfenced, only $1.2 of the $6 billion needed to build it is funded, and it crosses rugged land as well as Indian nation land. (WP) As of September 2008, only half the 700 mile fence had been built. A virtual fence which the administration hoped would cover the rest of the border could ultimately cost anywhere from $2 billion to $30 billion (WP) - it it ever gets completed, that is; plans for the virtual fence may be delayed or scrapped after its pilot project - P028 - proved to be problematic (NYT & WP).

more info...

The Congressional Budget Office estimates how much the Senate's bill would cost. In a nutshell, over the next ten years the US would

  • pay an extra $54 billion in direct services (including health, social security and food stamps but not public schools),
  • pull in an extra $66 billion from fees, penalties and taxes, and
  • spend an extra $64 billion on enforcement.

Note: An updated report from the CBO puts those numbers at: $48 billion in services, $44 billion in revenue (although unclear language in the bill makes it look like there could be a $79 billion loss in revenue) and $78 billion in enforcement.

Stateside: Also, as a related aside, USA Today (twice), the Washington Post and the NYTimes (with graphic) describe trends at the state level to restrict - or expand - immigrant rights.

The NY Times whips up a one pager of stats with pretty graphics.

and opinions...

  • The Washington Post explains why some analysts think a crackdown on illegal immigration won't solve any problems.

  • A Washington Post editorialist says NAFTA is what is pushing so many immigrants over the Mexican border. Another says a guest worker program is just a way for business to get cheap labor.

  • Another WP editorialist advocates building a wall, raising wages for Americans and legalizing the undocumented immigrants already here.

  • Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute points out problems with all the Senate guest worker bills.

  • A NY Times article debates how much immigrant workers are needed in our economy vs. how much they're just bringing down low income wages. A NYT op-ed says low income workers would do better without a guest worker bill - and that the rest of America would manage just fine.

  • Peter Beinart says more enforcement on the Mexico border won't keep out terrorists - because no terrorists are coming through Mexico.

Updated June, 2009

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Isn't it interesting how

Isn't it interesting how illegal immigration was THE hotbutton issue about two years ago, and now it's getting absoutely no coverage whatsoever? The same could be said for terrorism, abortion, gay marriage, etc.  It's clear that when the economy is down, no one cares about anything other than fixing it.  I think the lesson was that if there was ever a time to have signficiant immigration reform, it was during the housing boom years of the Bush administration.  That type of political environment may not come up again for quite a while.

United states illegal immigration (not verified) | October 17, 2008 - 6:24pm