Despite widespread speculation that election-year politics would mean no Congressional action on immigration, a number of bills that deal only with specific aspects of immigration have been introduced in the House and Senate.
Most bills focus on increasing the caps for certain types of nonimmigrant visas and boosting enforcement through mandatory employment verification and other programs.
However, it is unlikely any legislation will get to President George Bush's desk because some of the dynamics that torpedoed immigration reform in 2006 and 2007 — the two parties' entrenched policy differences and public anger over illegal immigration — remain very much in play.
Several members of Congress who previously backed comprehensive immigration legislation, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have openly opposed the piecemeal immigration measures introduced this year. These members believe passage of such measures would make it harder for a comprehensive immigration reform bill to pass in the future.
Still, the House Democratic leadership supports increasing the number of H-2B visas for temporary workers, and there has been discussion of pairing such legislation with some enforcement provisions from the Secure America with Verification and Enforcement (SAVE) Act, which has created tension between leadership and Hispanic Caucus members.
The bills moving through Congress right now include the following:
The SAVE Act (HR 4088), sponsored by Representative Heath Shuler (D-NC), would mandate employer participation in the federal E-Verify program. E-Verify, formerly known as Basic Pilot, allows employers to check whether their employees are authorized to work by comparing employee names and Social Security numbers against Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Social Security Administration (SSA) databases.
According to the most recent estimates from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers E-Verify, and the Government Accountability Office, approximately 61,000 employers are currently signed up to use E-Verify.
While the SAVE Act and similar bills are popular with House Republicans and conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, the bills also face strong opposition from members of Congress concerned about E-Verify's high costs and the risk of wrongful termination of workers due to the high error rates in DHS and SSA databases.
Opponents also believe a mandatory E-Verify program would divert SSA resources away from retired and disabled workers, the agency's principal constituents.
The Save Our Small and Seasonal Business Act of 2007 (HR 1843), introduced by Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI), would increase the number of foreign-born workers eligible for sponsorship in the H-2B visa program. The H-2B program provides nonimmigrant visas for temporary or seasonal nonagricultural jobs. Under current immigration law, only 66,000 H-2B visas are available each fiscal year.
Employers, especially those running seasonal businesses such as restaurants, resort hotels, and landscaping companies, have lobbied Congress for an increase in H-2B visas, arguing that more H-2B workers are needed to fill temporary employment needs.
Those who oppose increasing the H-2B cap say H-2B workers take jobs away from American workers and that the H-2B system is prone to employer abuse.
The Detainee Basic Medical Care Act of 2008, sponsored by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), would set mandatory standards for the medical care of detained immigrants, and would require the Homeland Security Secretary to report all deaths in the immigrant detention system within 48 hours to the DHS and Justice Department inspectors general. The bill was introduced soon after the New York Times published a detailed report on the conditions in immigrant detention facilities and on deaths in immigration custody.
Napolitano Vetoes Immigration Enforcement Bill
Governor Janet Napolitano vetoed Arizona immigration enforcement bill HB 2807 although the bill was unanimously approved in the Arizona House and passed in the Arizona Senate by a wide margin. The bill would have required local sheriffs and police departments to participate in the implementation of federal immigration law.
The veto marked a dramatic break with the recent trend in Arizona of increasingly tough laws and policies to deter illegal immigration.
These include the Legal Arizona Workers Act, which mandates that all Arizona employers participate in the federal E-Verify program to determine whether new employees are work authorized, and changes to the Phoenix Police Department's Operations Order 1.4, which now directs police officers to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if they have a reasonable belief that an individual in police custody is an unauthorized immigrant.
Under the provisions of HB 2807, police departments would have had three ways of participating in the implementation of federal immigration law: having ICE train police officers to enforce immigration law, embedding ICE agents within their police departments, or establishing operational relationships with ICE.
The bill would also have forbidden state and local governments from preventing or restricting cooperation with federal immigration authorities in order to determine a person's eligibility for federal, state, or local benefits, or to verify an individual's identity upon arrest.
Concerned that the bill would lead to increased racial profiling, advocacy groups in Arizona lobbied Napolitano to veto the bill.
In vetoing the bill, however, Napolitano cited concerns over the costs of HB 2807 if the federal government did not pay for training police officers. Napolitano stated that this could potentially cost the state up to $100 million.
Biometric Collection at Airports. DHS issued a new proposed rule that will require commercial airlines and cruise ship companies to take biometric information from foreign visitors when they exit the United States. Currently, the majority of visitors to the United States (other than Canadian citizens) must submit biometric information, including fingerprints and digital photographs, when they enter the country. The new rule would require biometrics upon exit from the passengers who already submit entry biometrics. When Congress in 2007 approved legislation implementing recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, lawmakers set a June 30, 2009, deadline for DHS to collect exit biometrics from foreign visitors.
Remittances to Latin America. The number of Latin American immigrants sending remittances from the United States decreased in the first few months of 2008 according to a survey by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). If the trend holds for the rest of the calendar year, IADB anticipates the number of immigrants remitting money to Latin America will drop from 12.6 million in 2006 to 9.4 million in 2008, the first such drop since 2000. The survey cites several reasons for the decline, including the U.S. economic downturn, rising fuel and food costs, and the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding immigration. However, IADB predicts the overall amount of remittances will be roughly the same as the amounts sent in 2006 and 2007.
Recruitment in Mexico. The United Farm Workers union (UFW) signed an agreement with the Mexican state of Michoacan to facilitate the recruitment and hiring of Mexican workers for agricultural labor through the H-2A program for temporary agricultural workers. Under the agreement, the Michoacan government will help recruit local residents and will distribute information about workers' rights guaranteed under U.S. law. UFW in turn will help match workers with U.S. employers. In February 2008, DHS drafted new rules governing the H-2A visa program, making it easier for U.S. employers to petition for multiple unnamed agricultural workers. The comment period for the proposed rules ended March 31, 2008. DHS has not yet issued a final rule.
May Day Rallies. Although thousands of immigrants and immigration reform supporters took to the streets on May 1 to rally for immigration reform, the marches attracted fewer people than the huge rallies of May 2006 and 2007. Immigrant activists have attributed the decline to difficult economic times and fear over new immigration enforcement measures. In addition, activists say their focus is now on naturalization and voter-turnout campaigns.
Maine Driver's License Bill. Governor John Baldacci has signed into law a bill that requires proof of lawful status for all applicants for Maine driver's licenses. Under the new law, motor vehicle officials will check with the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE program, to determine whether an applicant's presence in the United States is lawful. The legislation to tighten driver's license requirements was introduced days after Maine became the last state to be granted an extension for meeting DHS licensing provisions under the Real ID Act.