Update on the Senate's Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill
May 31, 2007
On May 25, the Senate completed its first week of debate on immigration reform, voting on 12 amendments to the “grand bargain” that was negotiated by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the White House, and others, and then introduced on the Senate floor. The agreement takes the form of a substitute amendment to S. 1348, the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007. See NILC’s statement on the agreement. (The statement is also available in Spanish.)
Amendments That Have Already Been Considered
Perhaps the most significant amendment approved last week would likely make the already problematic legalization process even longer than originally projected — in fact, it could prevent most of the legalized immigrants from ever transitioning from the precarious “Z nonimmigrant” status to lawful permanent residence and eventual citizenship. The amendment, offered by Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), was adopted on a voice vote. It would enhance the “triggers” that must be met before legalizing immigrants could adjust from “Z nonimmigrant status” to lawful permanent residence — and also before the new temporary worker program could take effect — to, among other things, include a new requirement that the Dept. of Homeland Security establish and demonstrate operational control over 100 percent of the international land border between Mexico and the United States. Needless to say, no such standard is likely to be achieved in the foreseeable future.
Another amendment, introduced by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and passed by unanimous consent (meaning that there was no vote, but the amendment was agreed to because no senator objected), would require legalizing immigrants to pay back taxes. This requirement, which has almost always been included in previous legalization bills, had been stripped from this one at the White House’s request, causing a predictable uproar on conservative blogs, cable television, and radio talk shows. Additional amendments are now pending on this subject — and could be voted on next week — that would require legalizing immigrants to pay significantly more taxes than others by disallowing tax credits and refunds that all other low-income tax filers rely on to make their tax burden affordable.
Several other amendments that would have gutted the agreement were defeated. One amendment to strike the entire legalization program for undocumented persons in the U.S. was overwhelmingly voted down. The Senate also defeated amendments striking the temporary worker program from the bill and ending the temporary worker program after 5 years, but passed an amendment reducing from 400,000 to 200,000 the number of persons who could be admitted under the program each year. The temporary worker program envisioned in the agreement is deeply flawed because it would require nonseasonal temporary workers to leave the U.S. for at least a year every 2 years and would leave them without any realistic eventual path to permanent residence or citizenship. These features, combined with the fact that the implementation of the new “merit-based” system would likely result in an initial reduction of permanent work visas for unskilled workers, would all but guarantee the creation of a substantial new undocumented class in the years to come. But no amendments to specifically address these issues have been filed to date.
Another amendment would have outlawed state and local government policies that prevent their employees — including police, and health and safety workers — from inquiring about the immigration status of those they serve if there is “probable cause” to believe the individual being questioned is undocumented. It was defeated, but only by one vote.
Other amendments that the Senate passed include:
Providing long-sought protections for unaccompanied minor children;
Clarifying rules that apply to noncitizens employed as dairy workers;
Giving local and DHS officials greater involvement in decisions about the location of border fencing;
Imposing mandatory minimum sentences for noncitizens who reenter the U.S. after removal;
Exempting children of certain Filipino World War II veterans from numerical limits on immigrant visas; and
Establishing the American Competitiveness Scholarship Program.
For more information on the amendments that were considered last week, go to http://thomas.loc.gov, search for S. 1348, click on “bill summary and status file” and click on “amendments.”
The Senate will resume consideration of the bill on Mon., June 4. Almost 100 amendments have been filed but not yet voted on. We do not know which of these amendments will be voted on or when, and it is expected that additional amendments will still be filed. For example, we expect at least one amendment with revised provisions for an electronic employment eligibility verification system to be filed. While the amendments that have been filed can be studied in advance, others will be filed, debated, and voted on with little time for analysis or public scrutiny.
Some of the amendments have the potential to improve the bill. They include reclassifying spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents as “immediate relatives” and giving family relationships greater weight in the new “merit-based” points system. These amendments would partially undo the bill’s dismantling of the family immigration system. If the pro-family amendments are not approved, a likely result will be that far fewer women will come to the U.S., since most immigrants who come here strictly for employment are men. Those who come would also be less likely to have lasting attachments to the U.S. and, perhaps surprisingly, there is little evidence that they would surpass today’s family immigrants in economic development over the long run.
The points system itself is unlikely to be removed from the bill, and many extremely damaging amendments also have been filed. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) alone has filed more than 25 amendments, virtually all of which would punish immigrants, or deprive them of fundamental rights, or make the path to legal status more arduous. At this point, it is impossible to predict how the bill will change before the final vote in the Senate, or whether the amended bill will be able to garner the 60 votes required to overcome a likely filibuster and pass the Senate.
For the present, our initial concerns about the “grand bargain” now being debated remain. While it would provide short term benefits to many undocumented immigrants, the long term consequences for both immigrants and citizens would likely be dire. Absent significant improvements next week, we expect to recommend that the Senate vote no on final passage.