Bush Administration Says Return Illegal Crossers, Create Temporary Worker Program, and Fortify the Border
The Bush administration renewed its call for immigration reform as Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao outlined a plan similar to the proposal Bush made in January 2004. The president mentioned immigration reform in his State of the Union address earlier this year but did not provide new details then.
Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 18, Chertoff mapped out a "three-legged" approach to immigration reform that includes border enforcement, interior enforcement, and a temporary worker program.
While signing the DHS appropriations bill the same day, Bush reinforced this message by stating that all illegal border crossers should be returned. He also said the country needs both enhanced border enforcement and a temporary work program that allows immigrants to support their families and employers to find workers when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.
Chao explained to the Judiciary Committee that Bush's temporary worker program would allow immigrants to apply to work in the United States for up to two three-year periods. Unauthorized immigrants presently in the country could also participate after paying an unspecified fine. After the temporary work period ended, immigrants would be required to return to their home countries and would not have an automatic path to citizenship.
Under the plan, Chao said, employers would have to prove to the Department of Labor that they could not find native workers to fill jobs before gaining authorization to hire foreign workers.
The latest explanation of Bush's temporary worker program provided few new details. However, this was the first time the administration had defined the number of times participants would be able to reapply for a three-year term (once).
Also, Chao gave new information on the restructuring of visa categories the plan would involve. She stated that it would replace all of the existing H visas (temporary work visas for agricultural work, nursing, and others), though the H-1B visa for high-tech and specialty workers would remain in place.
Senators questioned how officials could ensure workers would actually return home at the end of their work period. Chao and Chertoff specified that workers would register their addresses and be issued biometric documentation as they entered the program, which could allow officials to track immigrants who stayed past the sanctioned period.
Chertoff added that the plan would also make retirement or other benefits available to migrant workers only upon return to their home country.
Both officials stressed that a temporary work program would greatly bolster border security and national security, since opening legal channels would lessen numbers of those attempting to enter illegally and would allow officials to track immigrants who would otherwise come clandestinely.
Chertoff discussed other plans to strengthen border security, including increased detention beds and cooperation with foreign governments to speed the return of unauthorized migrants apprehended at the border.
The Bush proposal is similar to two main immigration reform bills currently before the House and Senate. One, sponsored by Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and McCain (R-AZ), likewise calls for a temporary work program, but, unlike the president's proposal, it would open new channels for temporary workers to apply for permanent legal status.
Another, sponsored by Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and Kyl (R-AZ), would require unauthorized immigrants currently in the country to return home before applying to work in the United States temporarily.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will receive $30.8 billion in appropriations for fiscal year (FY) 2006, including $19.1 billion for border enforcement, immigration, and related activities, an increase of $1.2 billion over FY 2005. President Bush signed the DHS Appropriations Bill into law on October 18.
The bill adds about $490 million to Bush's proposal for immigration and border enforcement.
The funding will support increased border and interior enforcement, providing $2.3 billion for the Border Patrol, including funding for 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents. The president's budget had called for 210 additional agents.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will receive more than $3.7 billion, including authorization for 100 new immigration enforcement agents and 250 criminal investigators. Funding for worksite enforcement was doubled from last year, as requested in the president's budget.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Robert Bonner welcomed the increased appropriations for border, customs, and security measures. ICE has not issued an official reaction to the bill.
The Appropriations Bill also authorizes investments in new infrastructure and technology, providing $41 million for border security technology such as surveillance equipment and unmanned aerial vehicles and an increase of $90 million for immigration detention custody operations called for in the president's proposal, which funds almost 2,000 new detention beds.
Increased detention space will aid the efforts Chertoff and Bush outlined to return unauthorized border crossers since limited detention space has been faulted for the large numbers of unauthorized immigrants who are apprehended but then abscond into the country's interior.
The new appropriations further bolster efforts to combat unauthorized migration by providing $135 million for the transportation and removal of unauthorized immigrants, and $5 million to train state and local officers to enforce immigration laws.
Robert Bonner, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), announced on September 28 that he would leave his post in November. Bonner, nominated as commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service in June 2001, became the first commissioner of CBP after Customs was merged into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003. No successor has yet been chosen.
Bonner is one of the longest-serving DHS officers. He oversaw the merger of three agencies and 42,000 employees when DHS was created, and he guided border control operations amidst strong security concerns following September 11.
DHS Secretary Chertoff praised Bonner's leadership in balancing border protection with the free flow of commerce necessary to the country and the global community.
Some union officials have criticized Bonner's oversight and support of the agency's employees, highlighting the challenges brought by the diverse expertise expected of border inspectors after border, customs, and agricultural inspections were merged in 2003.
With Bonner's resignation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), CBP, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) will all lack permanent leadership.
President Bush has nominated Julie Myers, most recently a special assistant to him, to head ICE. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee endorsed Myers' nomination on October 6 despite concerns about her lack of relevant experience. Myers worked as a federal prosecutor in New York for two years and previously held a variety of jobs in the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and the Treasury, including oversight of efforts to combat money laundering, financial crimes, and export-control law violations.
Critics have also pointed out that Myers is the niece of Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, who recently retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She is also married to the chief of staff of her would-be boss, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.
In September, Bush nominated Emilio González to head USCIS after Eduardo Aguirre resigned over the summer to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Spain. González became director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council in 2002; he currently works as senior managing director of law firm Tew Cardenas' global and government affairs practice.
Both Myers and González appeared before the Senate Judiciary committee on October 18, but neither nomination has yet been confirmed.
Border Deaths. Deaths of border crossers along the U.S.-Mexico border reached a new high of 464 during fiscal year (FY) 2005, including over 260 on the Arizona border, according to U.S. Border Patrol estimates. The number represents a 41 percent increase over the 330 border deaths in FY 2004. The previous high was 383 deaths in FY 2000. Officials attributed the increased deaths to more than 30 straight days of 100-degree-plus temperatures in parts of Arizona and to better record-keeping by the agency, which now checks with coroners' offices to include bodies located by other agencies. The Border Patrol also rescued a record 2,570 migrants in FY 2005, nearly twice as many as the 1,347 rescues last year.
Immigrants' Labor Rights. A California appeals court recently ruled that unauthorized immigrants hurt on the job are eligible for workers' compensation benefits. The Second District Court of Appeals in Los Angeles said federal immigration laws did not preempt state laws on workers' compensation insurance, minimum wage guarantees, or occupation health and safety protections. Immigrant Rafael Ruiz sought workers' compensation after reportedly injuring his shoulders, back, neck, and hands by lifting heavy sacks of beans for employer Farmer Bros. Coffee. The ruling follows decisions made in several states granting workplace protections to workers regardless of immigration status.
Unauthorized Work. According to a study by the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration (SSA), four percent of a sample of those issued temporary permission to work in the United States registered earnings after their authorized work period ended. The study looked at individuals assigned a temporary Social Security number during fiscal year 2000. The authors state that this finding may underestimate the number of people who overstay work visas, since many may continue to work under different SSNs, or may avoid reporting earnings to the SSA. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that between 25 and 40 percent (2.6 to 4.1 million) of the unauthorized population in the United States have overstayed some type of visa. The SSA Inspector General urged continued cooperation between the SSA and DHS on identifying and reducing the number of foreign workers who work beyond their authorized period.