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Immigration Reform -- Update on What Is Happening in Congress

Leading up to and immediately after the 2012 election, it was clear that immigration reform was a bipartisan priority for 2013. When the Senate passed the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” in June with an unprecedented vote of 68-32, activists and lawmakers alike were hopeful that Speaker Boehner and House leadership would follow suit to fix what is mutually agreed upon as a broken system. Unfortunately, Speaker Boehner has been adamant the House would not vote on a Senate-passed measure and would instead produce its own legislation. He has repeated his stance many times: on the day of the final vote and on several occasions in August through October 2013 when immigration activists were putting pressure on legislators to act. Speaker Boehner and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte (VA-06) have both insisted that the House would not pass a "comprehensive" bill, but would put forward incremental pieces of legislation and vote after full debate.

In the several months since the Senate bill passed, the House has produced a series of piecemeal immigration bills, most of which deal with enforcement and employment-based visas, but none addressing the plight of the millions of aspiring Americans everywhere. Democrats and Republicans alike have recognized the need for citizenship for those in our country who are currently undocumented – the  centerpiece of most comprehensive immigration bills in recent years – but the House Republican leadership has so far declined to embrace the idea.

Many House Republicans, who see an immigration overhaul as essential in wooing Hispanic voters in the upcoming 2014 congressional elections and later in the 2016 presidential election, said they could move on separate bills that would fast-track legalization for agricultural laborers, increase the number of visas for high-tech workers and provide an opportunity for young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children to become American citizens ("DREAMers"). Very little hope is expected for several bills (“referred to Committee”), which are more comprehensive.

Legislation proposed by House Republicans would fall short of real solutions to our broken system being sought by immigrants themselves and immigration activists. The latter groups have staged protests around the country, aired ads supporting reform, held elected officials accountable to their constituents, fasted for weeks for the cause, organized prayer vigils, and pressed their case in meetings with legislators. Pleas have come from immigrants, religious leaders, CEOs and business leaders, police officers and even Republican donors, seemingly to no avail.

Speaker Boehner made clear in November and December 2013 that:

  • the House would not enter into negotiations with the Senate to hash out differences between its immigration plans and the Senate immigration bill
  • despite the differences between the House and Senate, immigration reform was "absolutely not" dead; he would embrace a series of limited changes to the nation's immigration laws in the coming months
  • he was encouraged by the president's comments that he was open to the House plans to address immigration reform in a series of smaller bills (but conveniently neglected to mention the President's caveat -- only if it does not abandon comprehensive goals in legislation that passed the Senate last summer)
  • voting for immigration reform in the House would require a GOP majority vote (known as the Hastert rule).

Finally, in early January 2014, Speaker Boehner indicated that his leadership team was drafting principles for overhauling immigration laws that would be presented in coming weeks using a step-by-step approach. The effort to draft a statement of basic principles is being coordinated by Rebecca Tallent, who joined Speaker Boehner's staff in early December from the Bipartisan Policy Center where she had been the immigration policy director. A well-known expert in the immigration policy field and a veteran of more than a decade of congressional immigration battles, Ms. Tallent served as Chief of Staff for Senator John McCain's office, senior adviser to his 2008 presidential campaign, and a key adviser to former President's Bush's immigration reform efforts in 2003 and 2007. The goal, according to the Los Angeles Times (January 8), is to present the principles document, which would serve as an outline for future legislation, before the House GOP retreat on January 29, 2014.

A consistent and solid majority of Americans – 63% – crossing party and religious lines favors legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. , while only 14% support legal residency with no option for citizenship, thus creating a “permanent underclass,” according to a report published in late November by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Sixty percent of Republicans, 57% of independents and 73% of Democrats favor a pathway to citizenship. Majorities of Catholics, Protestants and people of other religions and of no religion also support that plan. A tough enforcement strategy of deportation was favored by only 18%.

In the survey, when the question of citizenship was not linked with any requirements, 59% supported the option for citizenship. When the question specified that immigrants would have to pay back taxes, learn English and pass background checks, support increased to 71%. According to the report, nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe a 13-year wait for citizenship under the Senate bill is too long, while 24% said it was just about right.

Nearly 2/3 of Americans – 65% – say the U.S. immigration system is either completely or mostly broken. Those who say it is "completely broken" have increased to 34% from 23% in March 2013, according to the report.

Advocates for immigration reform are encouraged by the addition of Rebecca Tallent to Speaker Boehner's staff, as well as his angry comments critical of Tea Party opposition to the budget deal in Congress – the same group that opposes comprehensive immigration reform. Both these moves, some say, indicate that he is serious about revamping the immigration system and will overlook any opposition from the Tea Party. However, advocates and representatives themselves are concerned about the political will of Republican leadership to take on immigration reform during an election year, and especially in light of their many comments against citizenship for the undocumented.   

Even though comprehensive immigration reform languished on Capitol Hill this past year, legislators in 45 states took decisive action to revise their own laws, some of which attempted to tighten immigration laws (most of which are being challenged in the courts), but much pro-immigrant activity occurred as well, according to the National Immigration Law Center. All told, 437 immigration-related bills were signed into law in 2013. Fifteen states now have “tuition equity” laws, which allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state-run colleges and universities. Ten states (both blue and red) have passed bills allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. California legislators have pushed some of the most far-reaching legislation, including allowing undocumented immigrants to be admitted to the state bar, protecting immigrants from workplace harassment and barring local law enforcement officers from handing over people eligible for deportation if they are arrested for minor crimes. None of these measures is comprehensive because only the federal government can pass such legislation, and advocates are planning that such action will occur in 2014.

These advocates are gearing up for their work to change the immigration laws. Civil disobedience demonstrations are planned for Washington and elsewhere. Business groups as well as interfaith leaders and college students are readying lobbying blitzes on Capitol Hill. Labor leaders, Catholic groups and evangelical ministers are considering more hunger fasts to dramatize the urgent need to prevent deportations.

The issue, of course, is whether legislaton that emanates from the House supports comprehensive immigration reform that:

  • Ensures family unity
  • Protects the rights of immigrant workers
  • Acknowledges that our borders are already secure, with only minor changes needed
  • Speeds up processing of already-approved immigrants
  • Enhances the present diversity visa program
  • Provides a clear and direct pathway to citizenship for the 11+ million people who are undocumented in the U.S.

It is up to dedicated grassroots lobbyists to ensure that the House bill or bills contain these important measures.