Negotiations to reconcile House and Senate versions of immigration reform have been delayed so that House Republicans can conduct hearings on immigration throughout the country during July and August. The first hearings will be held in San Diego, California, and Laredo, Texas, on July 5 and 7, and will focus on border vulnerabilities and international terrorism.
The move means that conference committee negotiations on the immigration bills passed by the House and the Senate will not begin until September at the earliest, creating additional doubts as to whether Congress will be able to pass immigration legislation this year. Observers believe lawmakers may be reluctant to tackle a divisive issue such as immigration in the weeks leading up to the November elections. Some also point to the fact that Congress has struggled in the past to complete legislation in the "lame duck" session following elections.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-PA) has decided to counter this move by holding hearings of his own beginning in Pennsylvania on July 5.
The Senate bill, passed in May, includes the increased enforcement efforts at the border and worksites that comprise the House bill but adds a guest worker program and a path to legal status for many of the unauthorized immigrants already present in the United States.
The House has passed the $32.1 billion Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill (HR 5441), which includes $19.6 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2007 for immigration enforcement and border protection, plus an additional $1.6 billion for the remaining months of FY 2006. It also budgets $3.98 billion for the Secure Border Initiative, an immigration enforcement plan launched in late 2005.
Passed on June 6, the bill still needs Senate approval.
Immigration-related provisions include:
One amendment to the bill forbids DHS from disclosing any information to Mexico regarding Minutemen locations or operations, except in cases where such disclosure is required by treaty. Another amendment denies DHS funding to any state or locality having a "sanctuary policy" for unauthorized immigrants, which allows them to report crimes to authorities without revealing their immigration status.
Employers with workers whose Social Security numbers do not match Social Security Administration (SSA) records will have to follow up on such cases or risk charges of violating immigration laws, according to new regulations from DHS issued June 9. Some mismatches are due to misprints, name changes, or other causes, but many involve immigrant workers who are not authorized to work in the country and submit false Social Security numbers to gain employment.
The regulations also permit employers to retain I-9 employment records in electronic, rather than paper, form. I-9 forms document that employers have checked workers' Social Security and other work authorization cards.
Lack of action in cases where workers are unauthorized immigrants could be used to prove the employer "knowingly" employed illegal workers, a violation of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.
The new regulations will take effect after a 60-day comment period.
According to many observers, lack of enforcement of workplace hiring restrictions contributed to earlier reforms' failure to curb illegal immigration. DHS Secretary Chertoff explained that while larger reforms will require Congressional action, the Bush administration plans to use the tools it has available to improve enforcement of immigration laws.
Business groups explained that employers have often been confused about the way to react to "no-match" notices. Language in the letters warned employers not to take action against a worker based solely on the letter. The new regulations clarify the steps employers should take to remain in compliance with immigration and antidiscrimination laws. Some business groups labeled the new regulations a small but necessary fix.
According to DHS, as many as 10 percent of the 250 million wage reports SSA receives each year do not match the information in their records. Upon receiving a number mismatched numbers from a single firm, SSA sometimes sends a "no-match" letter to the employer notifying them of the discrepancies.
Currently, employers are not legally bound to follow up on such notifications. Under the new rules, however, they would need to verify there had been no paperwork error, and then contact the employee to rectify the mismatched information. If the employee was unable to do so, the employer would be expected to fire the worker.
Employers would have 60 days to try to validate the Social Security number. If employers comply with regulations in good faith, then the "no-match" letters cannot be used against them to prove intentional employment of unauthorized immigrants.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 2,179 immigrants as part of a nationwide sweep termed "Operation Return to Sender" between May 26 and June 13. Nearly half of those arrested had criminal convictions that made them eligible for deportation. About 350 others were known to be members of gangs, and roughly 650 had ignored orders of deportation. ICE estimates there are about 590,000 immigrant fugitives in the country.
As of mid-June, about 830 of those arrested had already been deported to their home countries. Most of the rest were placed in deportation proceedings, while 121 immigrants who were apprehended on criminal charges are being processed in federal criminal courts.
The sweep was part of a new emphasis on interior enforcement, which comes as part of the Secure Borders Initiative. Nearly 1,200 unauthorized immigrants were arrested during a worksite enforcement operation in April that targeted pallet-making company IFCO Systems North America, Inc. The immigrants arrested were all employed illegally.
Some observers speculate that these sweeps are an effort by the Bush administration to prove its toughness in enforcing immigration law while the president backs proposals for a temporary worker program, earned legalization, and expanded channels of legal immigration.
All Medicaid applicants (including existing recipients) will have to provide proof of their citizenship or legal immigration status in order to receive benefits as of July 1. States that do not follow the new rules risk losing federal money for Medicaid.
Before the measure was passed as part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, a Medicaid applicant had only to declare citizenship, under penalty of perjury, to receive benefits. Noncitizen applicants had to provide documentary evidence supporting their stated immigration status.
The provision was added to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Medicaid budget savings bill — one component of the larger Deficit Reduction Act — by the chairman of the Health Subcommittee, Representative Nathan Deal (R-GA), and Representative Charlie Norwood (R-GA).
Norwood asserts the provisions will prevent unauthorized immigrants from fraudulently using Medicaid by requiring states to enforce the laws limiting Medicaid coverage to citizens and certain lawful permanent residents.
Officials in some states and advocates for the poor, however, are concerned the bill will disproportionately impact children, the elderly, and low-income citizens in rural areas who were born at home and may lack birth certificates or other forms of official documentation. Also at risk are victims of Hurricane Katrina, who may have lost their documents in the natural disaster, and people who are homeless, mentally ill, severely disabled, or in nursing homes.
Currently, only the states of New York, Georgia, Montana, and New Hampshire require documentation as evidence of citizenship in order to apply for Medicaid.
Border Funding. The House and Senate have passed a $94.5 billion emergency appropriations bill that provides funding for the "Global War on Terrorism" and Gulf Coast hurricane recovery, including $1.9 billion for border security. Funds will be spent on more detention beds, agents, and infrastructure, according to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. The money will also be spent on additional check points, the expansion of Border Patrol stations, coordination efforts between state and local law enforcement, additional immigration judges and attorneys, and the resources needed to support assistance from the additional 6,000 National Guard members who will be placed on the Southwest border over the next two years.
National Guard at the Border. An estimated 1,000 National Guard members had started patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border by June 29, according to military officials in border states. Members of the National Guard were assigned to the border as part of initiative "Operation Jump-Start," part of President Bush's plan to deploy up to 6,000 National Guard by August 1. Approximately 2,500 troops had been slated to be on the border by the end of June. The National Guard Bureau said on June 29 that this goal would be met, disputing the low count given by officials on the border. The National Guard troops are building fences and monitoring roads and cameras. They are also providing administrative support, including operating detections systems, providing transportation, and conducting training.
New CBP Commissioner. W. Ralph Basham was sworn in as the new commissioner of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on June 5. Commissioner Basham served as director of the Secret Service beginning in 2003 following many years of work in law-enforcement agencies. President Bush nominated Basham to head CBP in January 2006, and the Senate confirmed his appointment May 31. The previous commissioner, Robert Bonner, resigned in November 2005.
Integration Task Force. President Bush has launched a "Task Force on New Americans" to help foreign-born persons integrate, marking one of the federal government's first steps toward promoting immigrant integration — a task that has largely been left to state and local groups. Led by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, the task force will support efforts by government agencies, private businesses, and grassroots community groups to provide English, history, and civics education to new immigrants. The task force will also make recommendations to the president on policies to improve integration as well as ways to enhance intergovernmental cooperation on integration initiatives. No funds have yet been dedicated to the task force's operations. The DHS Office of Citizenship, created in 2002, was the first federal office devoted to promoting immigrant integration through efforts to increase naturalization rates of eligible immigrants.
TPS Extension. DHS granted Salvadorans with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) a one-year extension on June 15. TPS is offered to nationals of a country affected by armed conflict or natural disasters, allowing them to live and work in the United States until TPS is removed. Salvadorans received TPS following major earthquakes in the country in 2001. TPS was recently extended for Hondurans and Nicaraguans. Officials were initially concerned at the low numbers of people who had registered to extend their status, as required, but a last-minute surge in applications led to a participation rate of about 85 percent.
H-1B Visas. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on June 1 that the 2007 cap of 65,000 H-1B visas has already been reached, months before the fiscal year begins on October 1. H-1B visas allow high-skilled foreign workers to work in the United States for up to six years. This is the eighth time since 1997 that the visa limit has been reached before the fiscal year begins.