On Sept. 29, just before Congress recessed for the midterm elections, Democratic Senators Robert Menendez (New Jersey) and Patrick Leahy (Vermont) introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate. Although to some this seems to be an odd moment to be introducing such a thing, Menendez, Leahy and some immigrant rights activists think there is a chance of getting it passed during the lame duck session, between the election and the inauguration of the new Congress in January 2011.
The bill, S 3932, has no cosponsors as yet. It is pitched to the right of the main comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House of Representatives, HR 4321, and contains elements of an abortive attempt at a bill proposed by Senators Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., which was discussed earlier this year. The Schumer-Graham bill was dropped by Graham when the Republicans decided that they could get more electoral mileage out of immigrant-bashing than out of anything vaguely resembling statesmanship.
The authoritative Immigration Policy Center has done a thorough preliminary analysis of the new 874-page bill's major points.
* The approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants thought to be in this country will be given a chance to legalize themselves. This will entail paying fines, learning English and surviving a provisional "Lawful Protected Immigrant" status for six years. Persons who have committed serious crimes cannot qualify, but immigrants will not be excluded on the basis of having used a false Social Security number to work. During this time, they will be able to work and, extremely important to many immigrants, travel back and forth to visit their families. After six years they can become legal permanent residents eligible for eventual U.S. citizenship.
* Legal immigration categories will be refigured to allow more immigration for family unity and for work, which is intended to make it easier to come here legally and thus cut down on the pressure to come without documents. A bipartisan commission will be created to determine legal immigration quotas for the future.
* There will be a new guest worker program, called H-2C, for areas of the U.S. economy in which there is supposedly a shortage of labor. Though this component includes supposed safeguards against abuse, they will be hard to enforce and this item is likely to be opposed by most of organized labor.
* There are a number of new initiatives on border and internal enforcement. After five years, all employers in the United States will be required to electronically verify an employee's authorization to work in the United States. A new electronic Social Security card will be phased in.
* There will be programs to ensure that immigrants detained by the government will not be abused, will have access to health care and attorneys' services, and will not be separated from their minor children.
* The DREAM and AgJobs acts are included in their entirety.
The week after S 3932 was introduced, the Department of Homeland Security announced a record figure of 392,862 deportations for the 2010 fiscal year. Homeland Security claims that the number of "criminal aliens" deported is up to half of the total and the number of ordinary undocumented immigrants is down. However it would appear that the "criminal aliens" include not just murderers, thieves and gangsters, but also people ordered deported who did not leave, people who have been deported but who have come back again, and people whose offenses are relatively minor. Other aspects of the DHS crackdown are controversial. Harsher penalties on employers of undocumented workers do not generally help the workers, who are forced to find jobs that are even worse than the ones from which they are displaced.
The crackdown on criminal and undocumented aliens, plus the "enforcement" and "guest worker" elements included in the Menendez-Leahy bill are presented as part of a strategy to attract Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform. So far, it does not seem to be working, as the Republicans continue to use immigration as a wedge issue and concede nothing in return for the Democrats' olive branch.
At the beginning of the Obama administration, immigrants' rights activists had pressed the White House and Congress to move quickly on comprehensive immigration reform precisely because they feared that if this was left to the last minute, the issue would collide with the racist demagogy of the election season and reform would be doomed. The fate of the DREAM Act, which was shot down by the Republicans last month, is certainly discouraging to the overall effort.
But the situation of immigrant families in this country has become so dire that there is no backing down.
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