President Bush has filled three immigration and refugee leadership posts amid some controversy, naming Julie Myers as head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Ellen Sauerbrey as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, and Emilio Gonzalez as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
During Congress's winter break, President Bush confirmed both Myers and Sauerbrey in a process that circumvents the need for Senate approval of nominees.
Myers' nomination had faced opposition in the Senate from critics who cited her political connections and lack of experience leading an organization as large as ICE. Myers is the niece of Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, who recently retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and she is married to the chief of staff of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved her nomination in a party-line vote, but she never received a vote from the full Senate.
At the request of Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had postponed its vote on Sauerbrey's nomination until after the winter recess. Sauerbrey, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Maryland and state chairman of President Bush's 2000 campaign, most recently served as U.S. ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Critics argued she lacked relevant experience in refugee issues and highlighted her outspoken opposition to family planning and abortion while representing the United States internationally.
The Senate confirmed Gonzalez's nomination December 23. Gonzalez most recently served as senior managing director of global and government affairs for Tew Cardenas, LLP. He has also served as director of Western Hemisphere affairs for the National Security Council.
The recess appointments of Myers and Sauerbrey will last until January 2007 when the current congressional session concludes. There is no term limit on the Gonazalez appointment.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales issued two sharply worded memos to U.S. immigration judges and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in early January, accusing them of "intemperate or even abusive" conduct toward asylum seekers in the United States. Gonzales ordered Acting Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and the associate attorney general to undertake a comprehensive review of the immigration court system.
Federal appellate judges from courts in Chicago, Philadelphia, and California have accused immigration judges of misconduct in immigration rulings. Federal judges, who are responsible for judicial review when BIA decisions are appealed, accused immigration judges of returning asylum seekers to countries where they would face persecution and disrespectfully speaking to immigrants appearing before the court.
In recent years the number of immigration cases reaching federal appeals courts has surged. Immigration cases, mostly involving asylum seekers, increased from three percent of all federal appeals cases in 2001 to 40 percent of all cases in 2004.
The increase occurred after former Attorney General John Ashcroft enacted several reforms in 2002 aimed at streamlining the BIA's appellate review of immigration cases. Ashcroft reduced the number of BIA judges from 23 to 11, expanded the number of appeals heard by a single board member, and encouraged the use of one-word decisions when appropriate, in order to reduce the backlog of more than 56,000 cases.
As a result, federal judges argue, the BIA no longer serves its role as a filter for erroneous or intemperate decisions coming out of the immigration courts, thereby increasing the number of appeals that reach the federal appellate level. The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), of which the BIA forms one component, counters that the board carefully reviews each case.
Republican Leadership, Labor Groups Define Immigration Positions
The Republican National Committee (RNC), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and several of the country's largest unions have all officially endorsed immigration reform that opens some new avenue for foreign workers to immigrate to the United States.
At their winter meeting, RNC members were asked to choose between two competing resolutions: one aligned with President Bush's proposal, which calls for a temporary worker program coupled with enforcement measures, and the other from Arizona anti-immigration activist Randy Pullen, who proposes stricter immigration enforcement and the withholding of federal funds from state or local governments acting as "sanctuaries" for illegal immigrants. However, Pullen reportedly withdrew his resolution before a vote was held on the topic, and the committee members voted nearly unanimously to support the proposal resembling that of President Bush.
Heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the American Health Care Association outlined their immigration positions at the National Press Club on January 19.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents three million businesses in the country, supports expanded temporary visa programs for "essential workers," paths to permanent citizenship for some workers, and access to legal status for unauthorized immigrants present in the country.
The SEIU, which has 1.8 million members, has endorsed the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act introduced by Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and McCain (R-AZ).
LIUNA, representing 800,000 members, supports legalization for unauthorized immigrants in the country but emphasizes that if a temporary worker program is enacted, it must provide for tough labor-market tests to ensure that foreign workers are needed and that they will not negatively affect wages.
LIUNA also emphasizes the need for labor laws for all workers. The American Health Care Association supports a temporary worker program, a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants without a mandatory return to their home countries, and interior enforcement.
Not all labor groups are in agreement, however. The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) supports the legalization of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States but opposes the Kennedy-McCain bill. The union believes a broad guest-worker plan would lead to the exploitation of workers and the elimination of stable jobs with benefits in favor of temporary positions.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced plans to revise the questions on the U.S. Citizenship test by 2007 and put the new test into use by 2008. The test, which all immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship must pass, will no longer ask questions relating to U.S. flag colors, the number of members of Congress, or the national anthem. Instead it will ask immigrants about broad principles important to the country, such as freedom of speech, the rule of law, and civil rights.
The proposed changes are intended to produce citizens who are more aware of their rights and responsibilities in the country, and who identify with the values of the United States. Critics argue that addressing complex topics will require more sophisticated English capabilities, preventing certain eligible immigrants from naturalizing.
Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship, stated in December 2005 that USCIS sees the redesigned test as a "fundamental tool in the naturalization process, as an instrument to promote civic learning and patriotism." He said the citizenship office will create classroom materials, materials for self-study, and teacher-training programs to assist lawful permanent residents in preparing for the new test.
Currently, an estimated eight million immigrants in the country are eligible for citizenship but have not yet been naturalized. Of these eight million, about 60 percent have limited English skills, one-quarter have less than a ninth-grade education, and at least 40 percent earn incomes of less than $40,000 a year for a family of four.
Plans to redesign the citizenship test have been in the works since 2001, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service began studying a test redesign. In 1997, the Commission on Immigration Reform (also known as the Jordan Commission) had found that the test was inconsistently administered and also criticized the test for relying on the memorization of facts rather than an understanding of broader concepts.
Policy Beat In Brief
US-VISIT Expanded. The U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology System (US-VISIT), which tracks individuals entering the country, was successfully expanded to all remaining land, sea, and air ports of entry in late December, meeting the deadline for this latest phase of US-VISIT's implementation. US-VISIT collects fingerprints and digital photos of most foreigners and checks them against criminal and terrorist watch lists. American citizens and many Canadians and Mexicans are excluded from the security checks. US-VISIT does not yet track the exit of individuals from the United States.
Violence Against Women Act. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2005 (VAWA) was approved as part of the Department of Justice Appropriations Authorization Act for fiscal year (FY) 2006 to 2009 (H.R. 3402). Title VIII of the bill contains many provisions to protect immigrant women, children, and the elderly who have suffered abuse that affects their immigration status or ability to apply for immigration benefits.
Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act was reauthorized on January 10. The act extends funding for trafficking prevention and victim protection to 2007, authorizing about $180 million per year for measures to combat labor trafficking, the use of child soldiers, and sex trafficking domestically and abroad. An estimated 18,000 trafficking victims, mostly women and children, are brought to the United States each year. In the past four years, more than 800 survivors of trafficking in the United States were deemed eligible for rehabilitation services and other assistance under this bill.
Entry Procedures for U.S. Residents. The government will issue People Access Security Service (PASS) cards by the end of 2006 to offer an alternative to the requirement that U.S. residents show their passports to reenter the country from Mexico or Canada; the passport requirement goes into effect in January 2007. The cards would initially hold a digital photo of the holder, but may contain a carrier's driver's license and other biometric information in the future.
Student Visas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that visa processing posts are placing new priority on getting visas to foreign students and will issue student visas up to 120 days before classes begin (rather than the current 90 days). This will allow students to enter the country 45 days in advance of their studies.
Visa Processing. The Department of State (DOS) and DHS are enrolling companies for expedited visa processing and are increasing availability of online application forms and information. By December 2006, DOS and DHS will begin a pilot program to test paperless visa processing.
MN Governor on Immigration. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has entered the national debate on immigration reform, calling for increased numbers of visas for immigrants with degrees earned in the United States or technical skills, investor visas for immigrants planning to invest in Minnesota, state tax credit for legal immigrant families to compensate for the cost of English classes and citizenship application fees, and state funds for employers who offer English-language instruction. Pawlenty, a Republican, had previously called for local law enforcement to collect information on citizenship and immigration status of those they arrest; the creation of a Minnesota Illegal Immigration Enforcement Team; and increased fines for false IDs, identity theft, and businesses that hire unauthorized immigrants. These proposals followed the December 2005 release of a highly criticized report commissioned by Pawlenty on the cost of illegal immigration to Minnesota.
GAO Report. While U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has made good progress on reducing its backlogs, it is unlikely to meet its goal of completely eliminating the backlog by September 30, 2006, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). USCIS, which has already reallocated staff and streamlined the adjudication process, estimates it has reduced the backlog from 3.8 million in January 2004 to 1.2 million in June 2005, though it defines "backlog" differently than the law that originally required USCIS to address this problem. Naturalization and adjustment-of-status applications make up about three-quarters of the current backlog. GAO recommended that USCIS improve its capacity to accurately determine the size of the backlog and develop a quality-assurance program for the outcomes of application decisions.
Border Enforcement and Security Task Forces. As part of its Secure Border Initiative, DHS plans to create new task forces to unite federal, state, and local law enforcement in efforts to fight cross-border criminal activity. The new task forces, announced by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff January 6, will be modeled on Operation Black Jack, which brought together various agencies to fight violent cross-border crime in Laredo, Texas.