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Immigration reform heats up Congress

Wed, Jun 12, 2013

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Twelve-year-old Jesus Mancha is a U.S. citizen, but his father is not.

“I’m here to support my mom and dad,” Jesus spoke forcefully into the microphone after having difficulty speaking loudly enough for the audience to hear during a rally hosted by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). Featured speakers at the rally were U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago) and Paul Ryan (R-WI), who announced support for immigration reform.

Jesus has excelled in school, even receiving a scholastic award from President Obama. He hadn’t missed a day of school until the day of the rally. Jesus wants to be a mathematician, but he said that he needs his family to achieve this goal.

For years, 11 million undocumented immigrants have lived in limbo, in fear of deportation as the United States has failed to define their place.

Drafted by the so-called “Gang of Eight,” an immigration reform bill would change that. It was introduced in the U.S. Senate on April 16 and passed out of the Judiciary Committee on May 22. The bill is expected to be introduced to the full Senate this week, following the Memorial Day recess. It is anticipated the House will offer its own version around the same time.

Members of the Senate bipartisan Gang of Eight include Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey as well as Republicans Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.

The bill has four main goals:

Allocates $3 billion to beef up border security with drones, 3,500 more agents and an additional $1.5 billion for fencing.

Provides a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally before Dec. 31, 2011, starting six months after the Department of Homeland Security certifies that the border is secure. First, immigrants will receive Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status after paying a $500 fine and back taxes and passing a background check. After 10 years, RPIs with constant work history and tax payments, a knowledge of English and civics and no criminal record would will receive Lawful Permanent Resident status, (a Green Card) which puts them on track to citizenship in three years.

Increases the number of H-1B visas for workers in high-tech industries from 65,000 annually to 110,000 (and possibly 180,000) but eliminates the H2A agriculture workers visa and replaces it with a streamlined system. Establishes a guest worker visa program for lesser-skilled workers in tourism and hospitality.

Holds businesses accountable for verifying legal status before hiring. An electronic system would be in place within five years.

ICIRR Executive Director Lawrence Benito said the bill is “honestly, not everything we want but we’ve got to push to keep the process going to make it a better bill.

“What we like,” Benito said, “is they’ve addressed a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people. They’ve addressed the backlog of people who’ve been waiting a long time.

“But we do have concerns about the elimination of family and diversity visas and the length of the path to citizenship,” Benito added. “Obviously, we’d like it to be shorter, probably half the time that has been proposed in the Senate.”

Benito said he was unsure how the new agriculture and tourism visas would affect immigrants who are already here. These visas were sought by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) because of the industry in his own state, Benito said. These new visas displaced the current diversity and family visas.

Nearly 55,000 diversity visas were issued each year, almost half to African immigrants, Benito said. Similar to a lottery, these visas went to people who did not have a family member or employer willing to sponsor them.

“You look at the demographics of immigrants who come to this country and they are among the highest educated of all, usually at least a bachelor’s and often a master’s or more,” Benito said. “How many times have I taken a taxicab in the city of Chicago and I find in my conversations with them they have at least a bachelor’s degree. They are underemployed but they could offer more to our country if they had the opportunity to utilize their educational skills.”

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The diversity visa was vulnerable because it had no big national constituency supporting it, although it now has the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Fred Tsao, policy director at ICIRR. The proposed immigration legislation also eliminates permanent visas for siblings and married children over age 32.

Elimination of family visas could be destructive to immigrant communities, Benito said. “Part of what made immigrant families so successful is the extended network of support. Not just the spouse and children but the aunts and uncles. You go to any immigrant community and you see these thriving businesses. I think part of that success is attributed to the strong family network of support. That is the challenge we see in breaking up the family visa program.

The delayed pathway to citizenship is one component of the Senate’s immigration bill recycled from legislation seen in 2006. Business and labor interests and immigrant advocates have all provided input since then, Tsao said.

Immigrant participation in last November’s elections – 71 percent of Latinos voted for President Obama — added a crucial bit of political reality to the need for legislation, Benito said.

“Our message to all elected officials but certainly to the Republican Party is to ‘remember November.’ If they want to make inroads into the Latino and immigrant community, they need to take a leadership role on this issue. We’re not taking anything for granted. We’re going to continue to organize. Our organization is part of a national network of fair immigration reform movement. We’ve got sister coalitions and other organizations, labor unions working together to make sure we pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.”

Benito singled out U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in an email blast May 22 that sought 1,000 phone calls to Kirk’s office in the two days before the Memorial Day weekend. ICIRR promised to hold town hall meetings, Congressional visits and voter registration drives during the Capitol Hill recess.

“We have yet to see where Senator Mark Kirk or the Illinois Republican delegation stands on immigration reform,” Benito said. “If the Illinois Republican Party wants to make inroads into the Latino and immigrant community, Republicans need to take a leadership role in immigration reform and it needs to start with Senator Mark Kirk coming out publicly.”

“Sen. Kirk has long said that any immigration reform proposal must first restore the American people’s confidence in their government’s ability to control the border,” a Kirk spokesperson told StreetWise in an email. “Once that confidence is restored, Sen. Kirk believes bipartisan reform can improve our broken immigration system.”

Senate Gang of Eight members used their websites for various arguments regarding the proposed legislation.
McCain addressed Republicans’ concern that legalization amounts to amnesty. “Yes, we offer a path to citizenship to people who didn’t come here legally. They are here and realistically there is nothing we can do that will induce them all to return to their countries of origin.”

McCain said the bill is a fair and practical solution. “We’ve addressed the labor needs of a growing and globally competitive economy with a workable guest worker policy and sensible expansion of H-1B visa program. We’ve enforced the rule of law by making it more difficult for employers to hire people who’ve come here illegally.”

Legislation is needed, McCain said, because the current system isn’t working. “The status quo threatens our security, damages our economy, disregards the rule of law, and neglects our humanitarian responsibilities.…Neither can we continue to have people desperate for a better life be exploited by unscrupulous human traffickers, abused by violent criminals, and left to die in our deserts.”

Flake, also from Arizona, took a similar pragmatic view in an op ed he wrote for the Arizona Republic newspaper and posted to his website. “There are some Republicans who believe that anything short of rounding-up illegal immigrants and sending them back to their home countries is an amnesty. I, as well as most Republicans, do not ascribe to this view.”

Flake said that immigration reform failed in the past because of the public’s mistrust in the federal government’s ability to secure the borders. The proposed bill creates a commission of border state officials to make recommendations on what constitutes security, he said.

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“Only after the border is secured can illegal immigrants begin the arduous, albeit fair, process of applying for citizenship,” Flake wrote. Illegal immigrants will be required to pay fines, undergo background checks and line up behind legal applicants for citizenship, Flake said. Children of illegals brought here before age 16 will have an expedited path to citizenship, he said.

Lawful Permanent Resident status could be granted to children who have completed high school or GED, four years of college or four years in the military if the bill were passed. In effect, they would be jumping over the 10 years of Registered Provisional Immigrant status, according to the legislation.

Flake said provision of visas to high-skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) would go to foreign-born graduates of American universities and keep the US competitive in the global economy. “If we want to grow our economy, we need the next Google or Intel to be incorporated in the U.S., rather than overseas.”

Visas for lesser-skilled labor solve a failure of the 1986 legislation, which did not deal with the demand for future workers, he said. Temporary visas would address the needs of agriculture, hospitality and tourism. “But before they could hire temporary workers, employers would need to demonstrate that foreign workers would be filling jobs that Americans are unable or unwilling to fill.”

Cuban-American Republican Senator Rubio of called SB744 a “strong conservative effort” that would fix a broken immigration system: “the status quo of having 11 million undocumented people living under de facto amnesty will only continue if we do nothing to solve this problem.”


By Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

– Andrew Miller, Duncan Weinstein contributing

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