New push underway for immigration reform legislation

The government shutdown and the threat of default being pushed aside for the time being, President Obama, the Democratic leadership in Congress and the immigrants’ rights movement are planning a new push for immigration reform legislation in Congress.

In June, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill, S 744. On October 2, the Democratic Party leadership in the House of Representaitves introduced its own immigration reform bill, HR 15, The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act.

This bill is, in part, modeled on the Senate Bill 744, but omits one of the most criticized parts of the Senate legislation, namely the Corker-Hoeven amendment which would greatly increase the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. This aspect of the Senate bill led to indignation among many in the immigrants’ rights movement, especially in the border area where it is feared that such militarization would lead to massively increased human rights violations and more deaths as migrants are pushed into even more dangerous routes of passage into the United States.

Nevertheless, the House bill includes a number of the same problematic elements that S 744 does. Although it would offer a 10 year path to full legal residency with an additional three years to be able to apply for citizenship for most undocumented immigrants, it would, like the Senate Bill, have onerous requirements such as maintaining an income no lower than the official poverty rate and staying employed. (There would be more generous legalization terms for “dreamers,” who are undocumented immigrants brought her when they were minors, and for agricultural workers).

Though the House version makes more legal resident visas available, it also includes new guest worker programs that could be abused. In addition, like the Senate version, it would make it obligatory for employers to use the computerized e-verify system to check on the employment eligibility of all new employees. Immigrants’ rights advocates point out that this system is liable to deny jobs to eligible U.S. citizens and legal residents because of computer mistakes, while forcing undocumented workers to seek jobs with employers who pay cash under the table for even lower wages and in even worse conditions of labor.

The House bill contemplates maintaining the two programs which permit close cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local and state police, namely “Secure Communities” and 287 (g). These programs are seen as encouraging racial profiling and other abuses, as inadequately trained, abusive and sometimes racist police are given extra authority to pounce on people who appear to them to be undocumented. Manifest abuses on the part of private security firms contracted by the government to run prisons for immigrants facing deportation are not addressed. Finally, HR 15 eliminates the diversity visa, which is one of the few mechanisms that have allowed people from Africa and the Caribbean to come to the United States, as well as the visa preference for siblings and adult children of undocumented immigrants.

On October 15, President Obama announced that immigration reform would now be his focus, and that he wanted a bill to sign by the end of 2013. In the House, the fact that the government shutdown and threatened default on government debts led to divisions within the Republican Party and a weakening of the hand of House Speaker John Boehner and his party is seen as encouraging. Up to now, no progress on immigration reform has been possible in the House because Boehner has insisted that he will not call any legislation for a vote unless a majority of the Republican Caucus of 234 House members is for it, not just a majority of the House including Democrats. This meant that the only way a bill could be brought up for a vote would be by means of an unusual and difficult to achieve procedure called a “discharge petition”, in which a majority of House members (217) would sign a petition asking for the bill to be considered by the whole House.

A summer of intensive lobbying of Republican congresspersons by the immigrants’ rights movement, along with demonstrations in 80 cities on October 5 and a massive march in Washington on October 8, has produced the result that enough Republicans and Democrats are now signaling that they would support an immigration reform bill for it to pass. However, tea party’ites are so enraged at having lost the fight over the government shutdown that they are swearing to avenge themselves on Obama by blocking immigration reform. But they were against it in the first place!

Meanwhile, protests continue against the Obama administration’s aggressive policy of arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants, with civil disobedience in Tucson, San Francisco and other places. The Dream 9, undocumented students who are dramatizing the plight of their peers by courting arrest, are capturing greater and greater attention on the part of the the U.S. public.

Photo: AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.