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Democrats Introduce Immigration Reform Bill

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Democrats Introduce Immigration Reform Bill

This month's Policy Beat highlights the recent Democratic immigration reform bill introduced May 4, evaluates preliminary reactions to the bill, and compares it with President George W. Bush's proposal of January 7.

For a detailed look at the provisions of the SOLVE Act, click here.

On May 4, four months after President Bush's statement on immigration reform (see related article), senior Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy (MA) and fellow Democratic representatives Robert Menendez (NJ) and Luis Gutierrez (IL) introduced new immigration reform legislation. The Safe, Orderly, Legal Visas and Enforcement Act of 2004 (SOLVE) bill aims to address, among other issues, the security risks and social problems associated with an unauthorized immigrant population estimated at nine million people, the economic imperative for U.S. employers to fill needed, often low-wage jobs, and the social imperative of reuniting families and maintaining strong worker protections for all workers. With over 30 co-sponsors from 11 states, the House and the Senate versions of the bill have garnered strong support from fellow Democrats wishing to respond to the White House's election-year announcement, and present their own approach to the contentious issue of immigration reform.

Mustering Support for SOLVE

Although only recently introduced in Congress, the SOLVE Act has widespread recognition. Immigrant rights groups, labor unions, and civil liberties groups throughout the nation have, for the most part, expressed support for the legislation. It is striking in its similarity to the bipartisan Immigration Reform Act of 2004: Strengthening America's National Security, Economy and Families (the so-called "Hagel-Daschle" bill) introduced in late January. However, the added worker protections and this Democratic response to what has historically been considered a Democratic issue, have in many ways made the SOLVE Act a "major" piece of reform legislation.

Unlike President Bush's January 7 statement on the principles of immigration reform, which is vague on many points, in particular the terms for renewing temporary visas, the size of the proposed temporary worker program, description of enforcement efforts to deter new illegal flows, and the size of the increase of available permanent immigration visas, the SOLVE Act provides specific and detailed provisions. Some of the provisions, however, have received a fair amount of criticism. Similar to their reaction to President Bush's immigration reform statement, the restrictionist camp within the Republican Party views this bill as a general amnesty to reward lawbreakers. Furthermore, they contend that without a strong and detailed enforcement component to deter future illegal immigration flows, no bill is viable.

Others across the political spectrum have raised concerns about the daunting administrative task of processing several million applications in a timely manner while still maintaining assiduous security examinations. Moreover, these critics assert that the country's significant benefits backlog, reaching over six million in 2003, must be addressed in a way that benefits all current and future applicants. Some analysts, recalling the experience of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), which included a program to legalize over three million unauthorized immigrants, fear that the requirement to submit proof of residence and employment will give rise to a new and stronger tide of document fraud.

Mexican government officials, generally speaking, are in favor of the proposed legislation. Prior to the attacks of September 11, the U.S. and Mexico were negotiating a broad bilateral migration management plan, the so-called "whole enchilada." Many of the same elements, namely regularization for unauthorized Mexican immigrants and an expanded or revised temporary worker program, have been incorporated into the SOLVE Act.

Visions for Reform

Broadly speaking, the SOLVE Act aims to achieve the same goals that President Bush identified in his January 7 address: to enhance national security, serve America's economy, protect the wages and working conditions of all residents, and prevent future exploitation and the need for human smuggling along the border. However, the two proposals diverge in one very important way. Whereas the White House's statement is firm in its assertion that working immigrants receive only temporary legal status up front - after their visa has expired they are required to return home - the Democrats have proposed that successful applicants be granted permanent status. Proponents of the SOLVE Act argue that under Bush's plan, immigrants will fall back out of status before returning to their home country, thereby increasing the unauthorized immigrant population. Furthermore, they highlight evidence indicating that immigrants are more likely to invest in their community and their own skills when granted permanent instead of temporary status.

Although the immigration debate has begun, neither political party believes legislative action, particularly a major overhaul of the immigration system, is likely to occur in an election year. Yet, political realities in an election year have special meaning. With the 2004 presidential election predicted to be tight, both parties are eager to appeal to the growing body of Latino constituents, many of whom reside in the "swing" states where immigration is an important topic. The SOLVE Act proves to be yet another phase in an evolving immigration reform debate.

For more information see:
Bush Proposes New Temporary Worker Program
Immigrants and U.S. Labor Unions
The Foreign Born in the U.S. Labor Force
Occupation and Industry of Foreign-Born Workers in the U.S. 
Unauthorized Immigration to the U.S. 
Maps of the Foreign Born in the U.S. 
International Agreements of the Social Security Administration