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Push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform Grows, But Several Obstacles Remain
By Muzaffar Chishti and Claire Bergeron
Migration Policy Institute
President Barack Obama met with 24 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in March to discuss immigration reform.
April 15, 2009
The Obama administration plans to address the nation's immigration policy
in the coming months and may begin discussions for legislation to reform the
US immigration system, according to a top aide to the president.
The administration's announcement comes as
immigrant advocates and Latino organizations are renewing national campaigns
in support of "comprehensive immigration reform" — broad legislation
that would include a path to legal status for many of the nation's estimated
12 million unauthorized immigrants.
The two national federations of labor, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, have jointly endorsed a proposal for such a reform.
Last month, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a highly publicized
meeting with Obama, reportedly to discuss the prospect of a new immigration
reform bill. While speaking to a large audience in Costa Mesa, California,
the same day, Obama told audience members he favors a comprehensive immigration
bill that would allow unauthorized immigrants to "get out of the shadows."
A number of obstacles, including the faltering US economy and the political
risk of engaging the contentious immigration debate, could keep any major immigration
reform legislation from making it to a vote in Congress in 2009. The president
also has a crowded agenda that includes the economy, education, renewable energy,
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and health-care reform.
The Obama administration itself has emphasized that passing any kind of immigration
reform bill in the current economic climate will not be easy. Speaking with
reporters in Costa Rica in March, Vice President Joe Biden stated, "It's hard
to tell voters, when unemployment is increasing, when they are losing their
jobs and homes, that we should legalize foreigners and stop deportations."
President Obama also told Spanish radio DJ Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo that the economic recession would make the passage of an immigration bill "politically tough, probably tougher now than it was because of the fact that the economy has gotten worse."
However, the momentum for Congress to act on immigration is clearly growing. For the first time
since the demise of the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill, sponsored
by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), a number of immigrant
advocates and immigrant rights organizations have organized marches and "speaking
tours" in support of new legislation that would legalize unauthorized immigrants
who pay fines and meet other requirements.
In November 2008, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) kicked off a "Family Unity"
tour, holding prayer vigils and town-hall style meetings in 20 cities on the
need for immigration reform. The United Farm Workers of America recently announced
a series of nationwide marches to press for a new comprehensive immigration
In addition, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials
(NALEO), Spanish-language broadcaster Univision, and the League of United Latin
American Citizens have begun a new push for the legalization of unauthorized
immigrants, emphasizing that reform is essential for accurately counting Latinos
in the 2010 census.
Religious organizations have also begun to build support
among their constituents. Several national Jewish organizations, led by the
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, announced their "Progress by Pesach" campaign
to push Congress and the new administration to adopt "humanitarian immigration
reform" and scale back worksite enforcement operations.
Cardinal Francis George, head of the US Council of Catholic Bishops, recently
reaffirmed the church's support of a new comprehensive immigration reform measure,
as did several senior Catholic leaders participating in a conference in Mexico
City in January. In February, the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, an
alliance of more than 50 faith-based organizations, announced a new "Interfaith
Platform on Humane Immigration Reform," which calls on Congress to create a
legalization process for unauthorized immigrants.
It remains to be seen whether
a new bill would be able to garner the bipartisan political support considered
critical to previous attempts. Several senior Republican members of Congress
who helped push large-scale immigration reform legislation a few years ago
seem to have shied away from leading new efforts.
According to several media
reports, McCain expressed his own hesitation during a recent meeting with Hispanic
business leaders. No other Republican lawmaker has yet assumed leadership of
In addition, business groups have reacted sharply to the proposals from labor unions because those proposals do not provide for an expanded temporary worker program.
While prospects for a broad immigration bill remain uncertain, smaller-scale
immigration bills have already begun to move forward. In late March, Senators
Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) reintroduced the Development,
Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as the DREAM
The act, which has bipartisan support, would allow unauthorized students who
came to the United States before turning 16 to gain legal status, provided
they had a clean criminal record, and completed a minimum of two years of college
or two years in the US military.
Although the DREAM Act would not apply to
unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States as adults, many immigrant
advocates see its passage as a "down payment" on a broader reform bill. Others
see such piecemeal measures as the only type of immigration reform bill Congress
is likely to pass in the near future.
Editor's note: This story originally said the American Jewish Committee was leading the Progress by Pesach campaign. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is leading this initiative, which the American Jewish Committee has endorsed. We regret the error.
Napolitano Plans to Shift Focus of Raids to Employers
and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reportedly decided to target employers who
knowingly hire unauthorized immigrants, rather than the unauthorized immigrants
themselves, under a revised policy from Homeland Security Secretary Janet
According to media reports, the shift in policy is responsible for delaying
several planned worksite enforcement operations that are now undergoing additional
The number of ICE worksite enforcement operations and related arrests
of unauthorized immigrants grew dramatically during the Bush administration.
In fiscal year (FY) 2002, ICE made 25 criminal and 485 administrative arrests
through its worksite enforcement program, a number that jumped to 1,101 criminal
and 5,173 administrative arrests in FY 2008.
Immigrant advocates, religious
and community leaders, and several members of Congress criticized worksite
raids saying that the operations frequently violated due process and led to
racial profiling. Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama also criticized the ICE
raids, calling them "ineffective."
Although immigrant advocates and community
and religious organizations have praised the new policy, critics say that focusing
only on employers that hire unauthorized immigrants, and not on their employees,
will increase the incentive for unauthorized immigrants to come to the United
As a further indication of the policy shift, ICE officials reportedly
gave temporary work authorization to many of the unauthorized immigrants arrested
during a worksite operation in Bellingham, Washington in late February, the
first since Obama took office. These immigrants agreed to cooperate with ICE
in its investigation of their former employer, Yamato Engine Specialists.
Policy Beat in Brief
Additional Resources for US-Mexico Border. The
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will deploy additional resources to
the US-Mexico border in hopes of combating a surge in border violence in
Mexico and cracking down on firearms and drug trafficking. Homeland Security
Secretary Janet Napolitano has said DHS will shift more than 360 of its officers
to the border and into Mexico, as well as triple the number of intelligence
agents working at the border. Napolitano has also pledged increased cooperation
with Mexican law enforcement officials. According to DHS, 6,000 drug-related
murders occurred in Mexico last year, more than twice the previous year's
H-1B Visa Applications. For the
first time since 2006, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) did
not receive enough H-1B visa applications in the first week of April to meet
the annual quota. Each fiscal year, 58,200 H-1B temporary visas are allotted
to high-skilled foreign-born workers, including engineers, computer programmers,
and architects. An additional 20,000 visas are reserved for workers who have
received advanced degrees at US universities. As of April 9, 2009, USCIS had
received 42,000 H-1B visa petitions. In a related development, the economic
stimulus package passed in February stipulates that businesses receiving money
under the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) must prioritize the hiring
of US workers over H-1B visa holders.
H-2A Regulations. The US Department
of Labor (DOL) has suspended for nine months the H-2A guest worker program
regulations the Bush administration issued during its final days. Secretary
of Labor Hilda Solis noted that stakeholders had raised concerns about the
new rules and said her department needed time to review and reconsider them.
The H-2A program allows US employers to petition for foreign-born agricultural
workers, who receive temporary visas. The new regulations had allowed employers
to petition for multiple unnamed workers on the same application, and changed
the formula for establishing the workers' minimum wage. Farm-labor advocates
heavily criticized the new rules, saying they would lead to lower wages and
increased employer abuse.
New Military Program for Temporary Visa Holders. Fifty-two
foreigners with temporary visas have enlisted in the US military under the
terms of the new Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program,
according to a report in The New York Times. The program is open
to certain temporary visa holders if they have advanced training in the medical
sciences or needed language skills. Previously, enlistment was limited to
lawful permanent residents and US citizens. MAVNI enlistees will immediately
qualify for US citizenship under the terms of a 2002 executive order. The
program will run through December 31, 2009, and is limited to 1,000 enlistees.
Lawsuit over Immigration Detention Conditions. A
class-action lawsuit charges the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with
violating immigrants' constitutional rights by holding them for extended periods
in a detention facility designed to be a short-term processing center. The
lawsuit, Julio Castellano v. Napolitano, alleges that immigrants held
in the "B-18" detention facility in downtown Los Angeles are detained for days
or weeks at a time in a facility that is overcrowded, dirty, and unsafe. The
lawsuit was filed after two human rights organization issued reports, criticizing
immigration detention conditions.
for Liberians. Liberian
nationals who had temporary protected status (TPS) may remain and work in
the United States for an additional 12 months thanks to a new presidential
order that protects them against deportation through March 31, 2010. The
extension of "Deferred Enforced Departure" (DED) affects approximately 3,500
Liberian nationals who had held TPS as of September 30, 2007.The US government
grants TPS to certain foreign nationals already in the country whom the government
has determined cannot return home because of an extended armed conflict or
environmental disaster. President George W. Bush ended TPS for Liberians
in 2007, saying the political situation in Liberia had stabilized. Bush then
granted Liberians 18 months of DED.
US Immigration Law for Northern Mariana Islands. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has delayed implementation of US immigration law in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) until November 28. CNMI, a US territory in the North Pacific, was to begin transitioning to US immigration law on June 1. CNMI has had its own immigration system since 1976. Critics said requiring CNMI to adopt US immigration law would hurt the commonwealth's economy, which heavily depends on foreign-born workers. According to the Government Accountability Office, foreign workers represented two-thirds of all CNMI workers in 2005 and were especially prevalent in garment manufacturing and tourism, two of the commonwealth's biggest industries.
State and Local PB in Brief:
- Read the DHS press release on the delay in CNMI's transition to US immigration law.
- Read the GAO report on US immigration law and CNMI.
Maryland Bill on Driver's Licenses. Maryland will no longer grant driver's licenses to unauthorized immigrants under a bill the state legislature has approved and that Governor Martin O'Malley is expected to sign. The bill, which brings Maryland into compliance with the federal security law known as REAL ID, states that beginning June 1, all new applicants for Maryland driver's licenses must provide proof of legal immigration status. Maryland residents who already have driver's licenses and cannot show proof of legal status will be able to renew their licenses, but only until July 1, 2015. The measure passed on the last day of the legislative session.
Ruling on Unauthorized Students in Maryland. County
commissioners in Frederick County, Maryland, cannot ask public schools to
collect information about the immigration status of students, according to
a Maryland State Board of Education ruling. The board ruled that assessing
the financial impact of educating unauthorized students was not a valid public
purpose for collecting immigration-status information. Its decision relied
heavily on the 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, which established
the right to K-12 public education in the United States regardless of immigration
Illinois E-Verify Law Invalid. An Illinois law prohibiting
employers from participating in the federal E-Verify program is invalid because
it violated the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution, a US District Court
judge has ruled. In 2007, Illinois forbade employers from enrolling in the
E-Verify system until the system could definitively confirm all employees'
work eligibility within three days. E-Verify allows employers to check whether
employees are authorized to work by entering their names and Social Security
numbers into a federal database.
Legal Status and Public Benefits in Nebraska. A
new Nebraska lawwill require state and local agencies to verify the legal status
of most applicants for public benefits beginning October 1. The verification
requirement will not apply, however, to individuals needing emergency medical
care or applying for short-term cash assistance. The new law also says public
employers and contractors in Nebraska must use the federal E-Verify database
to check whether new employees are authorized to work. A provision to require
all of the state's private businesses to enroll in E-Verify did not make it
into the final version of the bill. Read the new Nebraska
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