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Elections Improve Odds for Immigration Reform in 2007

Elections Improve Odds for Immigration Reform in 2007

Mid-term Elections and Prospects for Immigration Reform in 2007

November election results. The outcome of the November midterm elections opened new prospects for broad immigration reform in 2007, with Democratic control of the House and Senate and new leadership of immigration subcommittees. Changing patterns among Hispanic voters also may increase both parties' interest in developing policies to lure this growing voting bloc.

Immigration restrictionist James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) will lose control of the House Judiciary Committee, and John Hostettler (R-IN), who led the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims lost his bid for reelection. New leadership for the House and Senate subcommittees on immigration has not yet been finalized.

Many observers believe immigration played some role in shaping voters' decisions on November 7, but the message was not always clear. Only about a third of voters told exit pollsters that immigration was extremely important in influencing their voting decisions. Of those, a narrow majority backed Republican candidates. Meanwhile, about 60 percent of voters stated support for a path to legal status for the country's unauthorized immigrants.

Exit polls showed that as many as 70 percent of Hispanics voted for Democratic congressional candidates, while fewer than 30 percent voted for Republicans, showing an 11 percentage point swing toward Democrats from 2004. Responses in exit polls indicate that dissatisfaction over the economy, the Iraq war, and other policies may have contributed more to the shift away from Republicans than opinions on immigration debates.

In addition to Hostettler, other hard-line immigration enforcement incumbents lost their seats, including Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Representative J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ). Candidate Randy Graf (R-AZ), who framed his campaign on combating illegal immigration, lost his bid for a seat in the House.

Yet even while rejecting two enforcement-focused candidates, voters in Arizona also overwhelmingly supported three propositions to counter illegal immigration and a proposition to make English the state's official language. All passed by about 3-to-1 ratios statewide, and won the backing of every county in the state. (For a description of the Arizona propositions, see the November 2006 Policy Beat, and the links below.)

Colorado voters supported a state lawsuit against the federal government to demand better enforcement of federal immigration laws, with 56 percent of voters approving the measure. They very narrowly voted (50.6 percent) to deny employers who knowingly employ unauthorized immigrants a state tax credit.

Prospects for immigration reform in 2007. Immigration experts and some members of Congress expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for immigration reform in the 110th Congress while warning that the issue must be resolved before the 2008 presidential elections consume national attention.

President Bush appeared hopeful regarding comprehensive reform in a statement on November 8. "I think we have a good chance," he said. "It's an important issue and I hope we can get something done on it."

Analysts believe the chances for comprehensive reform will improve greatly under Democratic congressional leadership, but they also warn that new splits might emerge in the party now that it holds the majority. For example, labor groups are divided on the merits of temporary worker programs.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi did not include immigration reform on her list of six agenda items for the first 100 hours of the new Congress, but has stated that House Democrats will work with Bush to pair tough border security with new paths to legal work and citizenship for the country's unauthorized immigrants.

Action on immigration legislation is expected to begin in the Senate. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who is likely to lead the Senate subcommittee on immigration, has already begun to work with Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) to make plans for a new bill to be introduced early next year.

The bill will probably resemble the one the Senate approved last May. (For more on the provisions of the Senate-passed immigration reform bill, see the June 2006 Policy Beat).

  • Read more about Arizona's four propositions: denial of certain state services to unauthorized immigrants here; bail for unauthorized immigrant felons here; limits on punitive damages here; and English as the official state language here.
  • To read the Colorado referenda, click here and here.

Citizenship Test Redesigned

USCIS is revising the questions asked on the written and oral English examinations required for citizenship. The new citizenship exam will include fewer fact-based questions and more questions about U.S. democratic principles, such as the contents of the Bill of Rights.

Aside from this changed emphasis, the redesigned test is also intended to standardize testing across the country, following claims of uneven application of testing requirements.

The new questions will be tried out in 10 U.S. cities this winter to resolve any problems and refine the questions. The revised test will be implemented nationwide in 2008.

While USCIS officials say the goal of the redesign is not to make the test more difficult, some immigrant groups claim the test could become harder for lawful permanent residents with less education and English ability, due to its reliance on abstract concepts such as the meaning of democracy.

The 10 cities where the new questions will be tested are Miami, Florida; Boston, Massachusetts; Albany, New York; Charleston, South Carolina; Denver, Colorado; El Paso, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; San Antonio, Texas; and Yakima, Washington.

  • To view a USCIS Fact Sheet on the naturalization test redesign, click here.

Boeing-Led Border Security Measures Begin amid Cost, Management Questions

Installation of tower-mounted sensors, cameras, radars, and other high-tech border enforcement strategies led by Boeing and its team of subcontractors will have their first test along a 28-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border near Sasabe, Arizona by spring 2007. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hopes to eventually expand the technology along most of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The desert corridor was chosen as a test site because it was the busiest sector for border crossings in 2006, according to Border Patrol officials.

In September, DHS awarded Boeing a three-year contract with possible one-year extensions to manage SBInet, a component of the broader Secure Border Initiative (SBI), which will include more staffing along the border, technology, and interior enforcement of immigration laws. (For more on Boeing's contract, see the October 2006 Policy Beat.)

Richard Skinner, Inspector General of DHS, has criticized the agency in recent congressional testimony for awarding such a large contract with an indefinite delivery date and unclear objectives. Skinner stated that previous programs to achieve border security, including the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS) and America's Shield Initiative (ASI) failed due to management problems.

Skinner also warned that costs could escalate from the $2 billion proposed to anywhere from $8 to $30 billion. DHS plans to provide a more detailed plan for border measures by December 4.

While Boeing officials have said they will consider using fencing as an alternative to sensors and other technology along some portions of the border, the Bush administration and Congress appear to be backing down from last September's push for 700 miles of border fencing.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Democratic leaders in the House Homeland Security Committee met in mid-November to discuss the possibility of using more cameras, sensors, and communications equipment as alternatives to fencing. Chertoff expressed support for the idea, stating, "We think a virtual fence…is the most cost-effective and quickest and best way to get control of the border."

To read the statement by DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner, click here.

Policy Beat in Brief

Immigration Fee Increase. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will raise fees in 2007 for immigration benefits such as green cards, work permits, and naturalization, according to USCIS Director Emilio González. While the agency has not officially determined the fee increase, current proposals would nearly double the current costs. Currently, USCIS charges $180 for an employment authorization application and $325 for adjustment of status to permanent resident. According to USCIS, the higher fees are needed to cover increased administrative costs for processing applications. Immigrant advocates have said that raising the fee for naturalization from its current $330 will present a barrier to citizenship for many working-class immigrant families. González, himself a naturalized citizen, defended the proposed increases, stating that "American citizenship is priceless."

  • For a list of USCIS immigration forms and fees, visit the USCIS website.

New Passport Requirement. All U.S. citizens and foreign nationals entering the United States by air from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean will be required to carry a passport beginning on January 23, 2007, as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Previously, travelers were allowed to use driver's licenses or birth certificates for identification. The measure, required by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, is intended to strengthen border security by requiring documents that are more difficult to counterfeit. Officials from Canada and business owners from communities along the U.S.-Canada border warned that the new requirement could prevent some cross-border tourism and delay trade between the two countries. The passport requirement will extend to land and sea travelers by June 2009 at the latest.

  • To read a DHS press release about the new requirements, click here.

Foreign Student Enrollments. New enrollments of foreign students in U.S. colleges and universities increased 8 percent in the 2005-2006 school year, according to a new report by the Institute of International Education. The total number of foreign students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities (both new and returning students) remained steady at about 565,000, following several years of declining numbers. The University of Southern California drew the most foreign students, followed by Columbia, Purdue, New York University, and the University of Texas at Austin. About 42 percent of foreign graduate students were from Asia, with the largest numbers from India and China. The top fields of study among foreign students were engineering and business/management.

  • Read the Institute of International Education's report here.