The Time Has Come for Immigration Reform

By: Santiago Zalazar

The number of people immigrating to the United States has reached levels similar to those of the early 1900s. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, foreigners accounted for 32% of the total U.S. population growth. Based on these statistics, it is now the time, more than ever before, for the U.S. Congress to tackle immigration reform.

Comprehensive immigration reform will dominate the agenda of the 113th Congress after the August recess.

On June 27, 2013, the Senate passed the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” (S. 744), the proposed legislation drafted by a small bipartisan group of Senators known as the “Gang of Eight.”  While many of these Senators wrote the bill motivated by principle, others strategically joined the Gang because of political ambition and their leadership position in their parties. The Senate voted 68-32 to pass The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, showing bipartisan support and sending a strong message to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

The INA establishes the requirements for permanent and temporary entry of foreign nationals, grounds for exclusion and deportation of aliens, migration controls for American citizens and foreigners, and rules for the naturalization of foreign nationals. Since the INA was first codified in 1952, Congress has amended the statute six times.

Support for comprehensive immigration reform is evident, and the White House and House Republicans agree on much more than they give themselves credit for. That being said, it seems that politics will, once again, trump the will of the people and the 113th Congress will miss another opportunity to pass high-impact legislation.

Though I remain skeptical that the 113th Congress will address key issues such as the status of the 11.5 million aliens who have stayed in the U.S. without authorization, House Republicans will pretend to care about immigration reform by likely scheduling floor votes on the following three bills.

First, “The Border Security Results Act” (H.R. 1417), introduced by Chairman McCaul (R-Texas) and passed by the House Committee on Homeland Security on May 20, 2013, has the best chance of obtaining bipartisan support. The bill, whose objective is to create a plan to apprehend 90% of illegal crossings along the southwest U.S. border, has received praise from many border-state Democrats and will likely be a politically-feasible alternative to the much-criticized Corker-Hoeven proposal.

Second, the “SKILLS Visa Act” (H.R. 2131), introduced by Chairman Issa (R-California) and passed by the Committee on the Judiciary on June 28, 2013, would increase the cap on H-1B visas to 155,000 and provide for the issuance of another 40,000 for immigrants who earn their degree from a U.S. university. Although the provisions of Issa’s bill are similar to those passed by the Senate, the House bill would eliminate DV and siblings of U.S. citizens green card programs, both of which Democrats want to preserve.

Finally, the “Legal Workforce Act” (H.R. 1772), introduced by Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is another measure that includes several provisions on which both parties should agree. The current system allows employers to opt to participate in the E-verify program, checking every employee’s employment authorization through the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security databases. The bill, which cleared the House Committee on the Judiciary on June 26, 2013, would expand the current voluntary E-verify system nationwide and make its use mandatory.

While I do not fully endorse the buffet-of-policies style that the Senate bill adopted, I am not entirely sure that the House’s immigration à la Carte approach is a sensible strategy either, especially when the assumption is that the Republican party will utilize the debt ceiling crisis as leverage to negotiate before it schedules a vote on each of these bills.

Now that the Administration has ramped up the efforts to strengthen security at the borders and given enforcement authorities more resources to apprehend criminal immigrants, the time has come for Congress to step up and provide those who come to the U.S. committed to work diligently and in good faith with the legal framework and opportunities to advance themselves as individuals.

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