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Senate Debates Temporary Worker Program and Path to Legal Status for the Unauthorized
By Julia Gelatt
Migration Policy Institute
April 1, 2006
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-6 on March 27 to approve a wide-reaching
proposal for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a temporary worker
program with a path to lawful permanent resident (LPR) status. The proposal
also provides a way for unauthorized immigrants to adjust to legal status but
only after they fulfill certain requirements.
Under an agreement reached March 28, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) brought his own border security bill to the Senate floor for debate on March 30. However, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) was allowed to offer the Judiciary Committee’s proposal as an alternative. The Senate will proceed by discussing the full range of reforms discussed in the committee’s bill.
Debate on a guest worker program and legalization provisions is expected to
be contentious, due to sharp divisions between senators wanting increased enforcement
and those favoring a temporary worker program and a way for unauthorized immigrants
to legalize their status.
Provisions of the Judiciary Committee Proposal
- To read the Judiciary Committee's proposal, currently before the Senate as an amendment to S. 2454, click here.
- To read Frist’s Securing America’s Borders Act (S. 2454), click here.
Enforcement: The proposal would add up to 14,000 new Border
Patrol agents, 1,000 internal investigators, and 1,250 port of entry inspectors
over the course of five years. It would increase detention bed space
by 10,000, and authorize a "virtual wall" of unmanned vehicles,
cameras, and sensors along the US-Mexico border.
Guest Worker Program: The program would be open to 400,000
workers initially, who would be able to work for up to six years after paying
a $500 fee, passing a background check, and proving they have a job waiting
for them in the United States. They could apply to adjust to lawful permanent
resident status after six months if sponsored by their employer or through
self-petition after four years of work. They would then be allowed to wait in line for a green card.
Unauthorized Immigrants: Unauthorized immigrants could apply for three-year temporary status, renewable one time if they prove a steady work history in the United States since January 7, 2004, pay taxes owed for previous work, pass a background check, and pay a $1,000 fine. They would be eligible to apply for permanent legal status in the fourth year of their temporary status if they pay another $1,000 fine, have a clean criminal record, and prove their employment record, English ability, and knowledge of US civics. They could then get in line for a green card.
Limits on Permanent Immigration: The annual cap on
employment-based green cards for permanent immigrants would increase from 140,000
to 290,000, and a greater portion would be allocated for low-skilled workers
than in the current system. Immediate relatives of US citizens would
be exempted from the 480,000 annual cap on family-based immigration. The
per-country limits on family-sponsored and employment-based immigrants would
increase from seven percent to 10 percent of each category of immigration. Also,
unused green cards from one year would be made available for use the following
Farm workers: A five-year test program would grant 1.5 million
unauthorized farm workers a "blue card" visa that would provide
temporary work authorization for five years. The workers would be required
to work in the fields for at least 100 but not more than 150 days per year. If
they follow these rules, they would be allowed to apply for permanent status
after paying a fee and back taxes.
Unauthorized Students: Unauthorized immigrant students who
1) entered the country before they were 16 years old, 2) have been in the country
at least five years, and 3) have a high school diploma or GED would be allowed
to remain in the country for six years under conditional permanent resident
status in order to attend college or join the military. They would earn
full-fledged permanent resident status after successfully completing two years
of college or military service. This provision would also permit states
to charge such students in-state tuition at state universities (Note: these
provisions were previously introduced to Congress as the DREAM Act in 2005).
The committee did not address some topics, leaving them to be addressed on
the Senate floor. These issues include a worker verification system to prevent
the employment of unauthorized immigrants, and adjustment of the cap on H-1B
(high-skilled) temporary visas. The Senate Finance Committee will debate worksite
enforcement options prior to Senate debate.
- Shielding social service organizations from prosecution for providing aid
to unauthorized immigrants, in reaction to the House bill, which would make
it a crime to assist unauthorized immigrants;
- Incarcerating immigrants found to be present illegally, rather than releasing
them pending immigration hearings;
- Providing financial assistance to state and local law enforcement departments
that participate in federally sponsored training programs for the arrest
and detention of unauthorized immigrants; and
- Maintaining current provisions on the criminality of unauthorized status,
rather than making unauthorized status in the country a felony, as the House
Judiciary Committee members voting in favor of the bill were:
Senators Mike DeWine (R-OH); Lindsey Graham (R-SC); Sam Brownback (R-KS); Arlen
Specter (R-PA); Patrick Leahy (D-VT); Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA); Joseph Biden
(DE-D); Herbert Kohl (D-WI); Dianne Feinstein (D-CA); Russell Feingold (D-WI);
Charles Schumer (D-NY); and Richard Durbin (D-IL).
Judiciary Committee members voting against the bill were:
Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT); Charles Grassley (R-IA); Jon Kyl (R-AZ); Jeff Sessions
(R-AL); John Cornyn (R-TX), and Tom Coburn (R-OK).
Reactions to the Proposals
Any bill passed by the full Senate will have to be reconciled in a conference
committee with the House bill passed in December 2005, which focuses solely
on increased border security and other law enforcement measures (for more details
on House bill H.R. 4437, see the January 2006 Policy Beat).
Seventy-one members of the House have signed a letter saying that the Judiciary
Committee's recommendations are "fundamentally incompatible" with
the House's version of immigration reform.
However, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) has indicated the House might be open to a guest worker program when the Senate and House eventually reconcile their immigration bills. "Our first priority is to protect the borders," he told reporters on March 29. "We also know there is a need in some sectors of this economy for a guest-worker program."
Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said on March 27 that President
Bush was "pleased to see the Senate moving forward on legislation….It
is a difficult issue that will require compromise and tough choices," he
said, "but the important thing at this point is that the process is moving
In the days leading up to the Judiciary Committee vote, advocates for immigration
reform organized rallies around the country. In Los Angeles, a March
25 event drew an estimated 500,000 protesters while at least 100,000 marchers
in Chicago protested on March 10, holding handmade signs with statements such
as, "We are workers, not terrorists."
Over 30,000 immigrants gathered on the West Lawn of the US Capitol on March
7 to protest the House immigration enforcement bill, and 2,000 unauthorized
Irish immigrants from New York and Boston converged on the nation's capitol
the following week, calling for a path to legalization. Immigration protests
have also been held in Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco, Trenton,
NJ, and Columbus, OH.
Immigration activists are planning a 10-city protest on April 10, which would
pull tens of thousands of immigrant workers from their jobs, in hopes of highlighting
the country's reliance on immigrant labor. Similar protests were
held on February 14 in Philadelphia, drawing 5,000 immigrants, and on March
23 in Milwaukee, WI, drawing 10,000.
Bush Reiterates Immigration Stance
As the Senate geared up to begin its immigration debate, President Bush reiterated
his position on immigration reform, pushing Congress to include a temporary
worker program in its immigration reform bill along with increased border and
Bush met with agricultural, religious, and business leaders, and immigration
experts on March 23 to discuss immigration reform and attended a naturalization
ceremony on March 27. During a question-and-answer session with the press
on March 20 and again during the naturalization ceremony, Bush outlined the three broad
principals he believes should be part of immigration reform.
He stated that immigration reform should include practical enforcement of
the border, including hiring more Border Patrol agents, devoting resources
to alien-detection devices that support the Border Patrol's work, speeding
the removal of unauthorized entrants, and ensuring that those who are detained
at the border are not later released into the country.
Bush said this enforcement should be matched with interior enforcement, and
he highlighted his proposal to double the resources for worksite enforcement
in the 2007 budget.
Finally, he called for a temporary worker program, which he said would make
the immigration system "more rational, orderly, and secure." He
said that a temporary worker program would help secure the border by allowing
intending workers to enter legally and freeing law enforcement agents to focus
on criminals and terrorists.
Bush stated his opposition to "amnesty," asserting that temporary
immigrants who wanted to apply for green cards should have to get in line behind
those already waiting. He said Congress may decide to raise
immigration quotas from certain countries.
Bush has repeatedly emphasized the country's history as a nation of
immigrants, stating that the current immigration system,
in which people risk their lives to sneak into the country and work, is "not
Policy Beat in Brief
Deportees to China. China is refusing
to take back an estimated 39,000 citizens who have been denied immigration
to the United States, according to an Associated Press interview with Department
of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff on March 14. Last year,
China readmitted only 800 people, leaving a backlog of tens of thousands of
Chinese citizens illegally in the United States. Most of these immigrants have
been released on bond or under an electronic monitoring program, while 687
are being held in immigration detention centers at a cost of $95 a person per
day. While other countries are also refusing to take back citizens, China has
the largest backlog of citizens with deportation orders, according to Chertoff.
SSA-DHS Cooperation. Some data held by the Social
Security Administration (SSA) could help DHS identify and investigate workplaces
hiring unauthorized immigrants if better information-sharing procedures were
implemented, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability
Office (GAO). SSA is not currently authorized to share taxpayer records for
worksite-enforcement purposes and would need to seek legislative authority
to do so. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officials have expressed concern that
sharing taxpayer records with other agencies might have a chilling effect on
Hispanics in North Carolina. North Carolina's
Hispanic population adds $9 billion to the state's overall economy through
taxes, labor, and consumer spending, while generating a $61 million fiscal
deficit, according to a recent study by the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill. Fifty-eight percent of the state's 600,913 Hispanics are
foreign born; of the foreign-born population, about three-quarters (roughly 266,000)
are unauthorized. Looking more narrowly at effects on the state budget,
the study found that all Hispanic residents (native and foreign born) pay about $756 million in taxes each
year but cost the state about $817 million in education, healthcare, and correctional
services. The net cost to taxpayers then is $61 million, or $102 per
Hispanic resident per year.
- To read the GAO report "Social Security Numbers: Coordinated
Approach to SSN Data Could Help Reduce Unauthorized Work," click
read another GAO report detailing SSA's procedures for issuing
SSNs to foreign-born residents, "Social Security Administration:
Procedures for Issuing Numbers and Benefits to the Foreign-Born," click
- To read the UNC report, "The Economic Impact of the Hispanic Population
on the State of North Carolina," click
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