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Top 10 of 2006 - Issue #3 U.S. Immigration Reform: Better Luck Next Year

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Top 10 of 2006 - Issue #3 U.S. Immigration Reform: Better Luck Next Year

The only immigration-reform bill Congress managed to pass before the midterm elections was the "Secure Fence Act."

In January 2004, President George Bush declared the current immigration system "broken" and proposed a temporary worker program open to the unauthorized as well as new foreign workers. Nearly three years later, the United States has not come much closer to that goal although events in 2006 may have changed the political climate in which immigration will be debated next year.

Protests against a House of Representatives bill (HR 4437) in the spring drew hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters in multiple cities — including Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Phoenix, and Washington, DC — and made national headlines. Passed in December 2005, HR 4437 would have made unauthorized presence in the country a felony rather than a civil crime, among other measures.

Seeking to defuse the raucous debate over illegal immigration, the president promised in mid-May to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. By the end of May, the Senate had passed a bill that provided for legalization and temporary worker programs as well as tough border security and interior measures.

However, the House refused to negotiate with the Senate, choosing instead to hold hearings around the country during July and August. The hearings quickly degenerated into attempts to garner support for the House's approach to reform by systematically attacking the Senate legislation on grounds ranging from it being too costly to being insensitive to U.S. security interests.

As a result of the impasse, the only immigration-reform bill Congress managed to pass before the midterm elections was the "Secure Fence Act." The bill authorizes the construction of up to 700 miles of double-layer fencing along the Southwest border and allows for the creation of a virtual fence along the entire Southwest border (see Issue #5: All About the Border). However, Congress appropriated only a small proportion of the funds implementation of the law would require, and gave the president wide latitude on how he could use them.

Although many Republicans and Democrats touted illegal immigration as a key election issue, some major opponents of immigration were defeated on November 7. Most notably, John Hostettler (R-IN), a six-term member who was chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, lost his seat, as did six-term member J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), for whom border security was one of the main campaign issues. Minuteman member Randy Graf, the Republican candidate vying for Jim Kolbe's House seat in an Arizona district bordering Mexico, failed to win.

With Democrats in the majority in both the House and Senate, leadership of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Citizenship will likely pass from John Cornyn (R-TX), who cosponsored an enforcement-focused, comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005 with Jon Kyl (R-AZ), to Edward Kennedy (D-MA). The House leadership has not yet decided on committee assignments (see Ones to Watch: U.S. Immigration Reform).

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