House Republicans will continue their field hearings on immigration reform this month, with plans to hold 21 hearings in 13 states. Proponents of comprehensive reform have described the hearings as a "waste of time" and a tactic meant to delay House-Senate negotiations.
The House held several hearings in July, including hearings by the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism (on border vulnerabilities and international terrorism) in San Diego, CA, on July 5 and in Laredo, TX, on July 7.
Various House committees also held hearings on aspects of immigration reform in Washington, DC, in July. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings in Philadelphia, PA, on July 5 and in Washington, DC, on July 12 on the need for comprehensive immigration reform, and the Senate Armed Services committee held a hearing on immigrants in the armed forces in Miami, FL, on July 10.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Representative Mike Pence (R-IN) have introduced a new immigration reform bill that would allow the country's unauthorized immigrants to join a temporary worker program only after the president certifies that U.S. borders have been secured. The plan would strengthen border enforcement through measures similar to those included in the House and Senate bills.
Announced July 25, the bill aims to strike middle ground between the House and Senate proposals for immigration reform. Republican leadership on the Hill generally welcomed the proposal as a step forward, while other members of Congress predicted the plan would make little ground in bridging the House-Senate divide on immigration.
Observers remain skeptical that Congress can yet come to agreement on immigration reform. Some speculate that this summer's field hearings will only serve to cement divided opinions on immigration. Others say there is little chance contentious legislation will be passed before the November elections.
The Hutchison-Pence temporary worker proposal is aimed at inducing the majority of the estimated 11.5 to 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the country to self-deport to their home countries, and reenter under a new temporary worker visa — the "Good Neighbor SAFE (Secure Authorized Foreign Employee) Visa." The visa would permit entry for up to two years, and could then be renewed as many as five times. It would be available only to citizens of countries participating in the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).
Applicants and their spouses and families would be processed through "Ellis Island Centers" operated by private U.S. companies. Temporary immigrants could obtain a new "X-Change" visa after 12 years in temporary status, which would confer lawful residence but no access to public benefits. After five years on an X-Change visa, immigrants could apply for permanent adjustment of status.
Voting Rights Act. Both the House and Senate have approved a 25-year extension to the Voting Rights Act, including a provision that calls for ballots and other election materials in voters' native languages when nonnative speakers in the jurisdiction number above 10,000 or make up more than 7.5 percent of the electorate. The act, originally passed in 1965, was adopted to counter the disenfranchisement of black voters. Most provisions of the act were permanent, but a few were set to expire in 2007. The House approved the bill in a vote of 390 to 33, while the Senate vote was 98 to 0. President Bush had urged Congress to pass the extension before the August recess.
Medicaid Requirements. The Bush administration has issued regulations providing states some avenues to get around the strict proof-of-citizenship requirements for Medicaid applicants that went into effect on July 1. The requirements, intended to block ineligible immigrants' access to Medicaid, had raised concerns that some U.S. citizens receiving Medicaid might also experience difficulty documenting their citizenship, and therefore lose their medical coverage. Under the regulations, about eight million elderly or disabled current Medicaid recipients would be exempted from new documentation requirements. The regulations also stipulate that states may rely on a variety of government program databases to establish citizenship. If no documentation of citizenship is available, states could accept sworn affidavits from the Medicaid applicant and at least one other person. The regulations will also allow states that provide coverage for legal immigrants to continue current procedures for verifying that they meet eligibility requirements.
DHS Funding. The Senate voted to grant the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) $32.8 billion for fiscal year 2007 in a unanimous vote on July 13. The bill includes an amendment introduced by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) to raise U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services service fees in order to raise $350 billion for aircraft, buses, and other vehicles for use by Border Patrol agents and for improvements in fences and other infrastructure at the border. The bill would also make digging tunnels under the border a felony offense and delay implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative until June 1, 2009. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will require travelers entering or reentering the United States from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean to provide documentation establishing their identity and citizenship. The Senate added about $700 million to the DHS appropriations bill the House passed in June, mainly in additional funds for port security. The two chambers will now need to reconcile their bills in a conference committee.