Push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform Grows, But Several Obstacles Remain
The Obama administration plans to address the nation's immigration policy in the coming months and may begin discussions for legislation to reform the U.S. immigration system, according to a top aide to the president.
The administration's announcement comes as immigrant advocates and Latino organizations are renewing national campaigns in support of "comprehensive immigration reform"—broad legislation that would include a path to legal status for many of the nation's estimated 12 million unauthorized immigrants.
The two national federations of labor, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, have jointly endorsed a proposal for such a reform.
Last month, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a highly publicized meeting with Obama, reportedly to discuss the prospect of a new immigration reform bill. While speaking to a large audience in Costa Mesa, California, the same day, Obama told audience members he favors a comprehensive immigration bill that would allow unauthorized immigrants to "get out of the shadows."
A number of obstacles, including the faltering U.S. economy and the political risk of engaging the contentious immigration debate, could keep any major immigration reform legislation from making it to a vote in Congress in 2009. The president also has a crowded agenda that includes the economy, education, renewable energy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and health-care reform.
The Obama administration itself has emphasized that passing any kind of immigration reform bill in the current economic climate will not be easy. Speaking with reporters in Costa Rica in March, Vice President Joe Biden stated, "It's hard to tell voters, when unemployment is increasing, when they are losing their jobs and homes, that we should legalize foreigners and stop deportations."
President Obama also told Spanish radio DJ Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo that the economic recession would make the passage of an immigration bill "politically tough, probably tougher now than it was because of the fact that the economy has gotten worse."
However, the momentum for Congress to act on immigration is clearly growing. For the first time since the demise of the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill, sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), a number of immigrant advocates and immigrant rights organizations have organized marches and "speaking tours" in support of new legislation that would legalize unauthorized immigrants who pay fines and meet other requirements.
In November 2008, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) kicked off a "Family Unity" tour, holding prayer vigils and town-hall style meetings in 20 cities on the need for immigration reform. The United Farm Workers of America recently announced a series of nationwide marches to press for a new comprehensive immigration reform bill.
In addition, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), Spanish-language broadcaster Univision, and the League of United Latin American Citizens have begun a new push for the legalization of unauthorized immigrants, emphasizing that reform is essential for accurately counting Latinos in the 2010 census.
Religious organizations have also begun to build support among their constituents. Several national Jewish organizations, led by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, announced their "Progress by Pesach" campaign to push Congress and the new administration to adopt "humanitarian immigration reform" and scale back worksite enforcement operations.
Cardinal Francis George, head of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, recently reaffirmed the church's support of a new comprehensive immigration reform measure, as did several senior Catholic leaders participating in a conference in Mexico City in January. In February, the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, an alliance of more than 50 faith-based organizations, announced a new "Interfaith Platform on Humane Immigration Reform," which calls on Congress to create a legalization process for unauthorized immigrants.
It remains to be seen whether a new bill would be able to garner the bipartisan political support considered critical to previous attempts. Several senior Republican members of Congress who helped push large-scale immigration reform legislation a few years ago seem to have shied away from leading new efforts.
According to several media reports, McCain expressed his own hesitation during a recent meeting with Hispanic business leaders. No other Republican lawmaker has yet assumed leadership of the issue.
In addition, business groups have reacted sharply to the proposals from labor unions because those proposals do not provide for an expanded temporary worker program.
While prospects for a broad immigration bill remain uncertain, smaller-scale immigration bills have already begun to move forward. In late March, Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) reintroduced the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as the DREAM Act.
The act, which has bipartisan support, would allow unauthorized students who came to the United States before turning 16 to gain legal status, provided they had a clean criminal record, and completed a minimum of two years of college or two years in the U.S. military.
Although the DREAM Act would not apply to unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States as adults, many immigrant advocates see its passage as a "down payment" on a broader reform bill. Others see such piecemeal measures as the only type of immigration reform bill Congress is likely to pass in the near future.
- Read the Congressional Hispanic Caucus press release on the Obama meeting.
- Read the AFL-CIO and Change to Win proposal for immigration reform.
- Read about the expansion of the Family Unity tour.
- Read the text of the 2009 DREAM Act.
- Read MPI's report, New Estimates of Unauthorized Youth Eligible for Legal Status under the DREAM Act.
Editor's note: This story originally said the American Jewish Committee was leading the Progress by Pesach campaign. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is leading this initiative, which the American Jewish Committee has endorsed. We regret the error.
Napolitano Plans to Shift Focus of Raids to Employers
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reportedly decided to target employers who knowingly hire unauthorized immigrants, rather than the unauthorized immigrants themselves, under a revised policy from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
According to media reports, the shift in policy is responsible for delaying several planned worksite enforcement operations that are now undergoing additional review.
The number of ICE worksite enforcement operations and related arrests of unauthorized immigrants grew dramatically during the Bush administration. In fiscal year (FY) 2002, ICE made 25 criminal and 485 administrative arrests through its worksite enforcement program, a number that jumped to 1,101 criminal and 5,173 administrative arrests in FY 2008.
Immigrant advocates, religious and community leaders, and several members of Congress criticized worksite raids saying that the operations frequently violated due process and led to racial profiling. Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama also criticized the ICE raids, calling them "ineffective."
Although immigrant advocates and community and religious organizations have praised the new policy, critics say that focusing only on employers that hire unauthorized immigrants, and not on their employees, will increase the incentive for unauthorized immigrants to come to the United States.
As a further indication of the policy shift, ICE officials reportedly gave temporary work authorization to many of the unauthorized immigrants arrested during a worksite operation in Bellingham, Washington in late February, the first since Obama took office. These immigrants agreed to cooperate with ICE in its investigation of their former employer, Yamato Engine Specialists.
- Read the ICE press release about the Bellingham operation.
- Read more about ICE worksite enforcement operations in MPI's report, DHS and Immigration: Taking Stock and Correcting Course.
Policy Beat in Brief
Additional Resources for U.S.-Mexico Border. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will deploy additional resources to the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes of combating a surge in border violence in Mexico and cracking down on firearms and drug trafficking. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said DHS will shift more than 360 of its officers to the border and into Mexico, as well as triple the number of intelligence agents working at the border. Napolitano has also pledged increased cooperation with Mexican law enforcement officials. According to DHS, 6,000 drug-related murders occurred in Mexico last year, more than twice the previous year's total.
- Read Napolitano's testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee.
- Read the DHS press release on improving border security.
H-1B Visa Applications. For the first time since 2006, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) did not receive enough H-1B visa applications in the first week of April to meet the annual quota. Each fiscal year, 58,200 H-1B temporary visas are allotted to high-skilled foreign-born workers, including engineers, computer programmers, and architects. An additional 20,000 visas are reserved for workers who have received advanced degrees at U.S. universities. As of April 9, 2009, USCIS had received 42,000 H-1B visa petitions. In a related development, the economic stimulus package passed in February stipulates that businesses receiving money under the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) must prioritize the hiring of U.S. workers over H-1B visa holders.
- Read more about the H-1B visa category in the April 2008 Policy Beat.
- Read the latest USCIS press release on the H-1B visa allotment for fiscal year 2010.
H-2A Regulations. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has suspended for nine months the H-2A guest worker program regulations the Bush administration issued during its final days. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis noted that stakeholders had raised concerns about the new rules and said her department needed time to review and reconsider them. The H-2A program allows U.S. employers to petition for foreign-born agricultural workers, who receive temporary visas. The new regulations had allowed employers to petition for multiple unnamed workers on the same application, and changed the formula for establishing the workers' minimum wage. Farm-labor advocates heavily criticized the new rules, saying they would lead to lower wages and increased employer abuse.
- Read the H-2A regulations issued in late 2008.
- Read about the suspension of the H-2A regulations.
- Read more about the H-2A regulations in the December 2008 Policy Beat.
New Military Program for Temporary Visa Holders. Fifty-two foreigners with temporary visas have enlisted in the U.S. military under the terms of the new Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program, according to a report in The New York Times. The program is open to certain temporary visa holders if they have advanced training in the medical sciences or needed language skills. Previously, enlistment was limited to lawful permanent residents and U.S. citizens. MAVNI enlistees will immediately qualify for U.S. citizenship under the terms of a 2002 executive order. The program will run through December 31, 2009, and is limited to 1,000 enlistees.
- Read the Department of Defense fact sheet on the MAVNI program.
- Read more about the MAVNI program in the March 2009 Policy Beat.
Lawsuit over Immigration Detention Conditions. A class-action lawsuit charges the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with violating immigrants' constitutional rights by holding them for extended periods in a detention facility designed to be a short-term processing center. The lawsuit, Julio Castellano v. Napolitano, alleges that immigrants held in the "B-18" detention facility in downtown Los Angeles are detained for days or weeks at a time in a facility that is overcrowded, dirty, and unsafe. The lawsuit was filed after two human rights organization issued reports, criticizing immigration detention conditions.
- Read the complaint in Castellano vs. Napolitano here:
- Read the reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on immigration detention in the United States.
Extension for Liberians. Liberian nationals who had temporary protected status (TPS) may remain and work in the United States for an additional 12 months thanks to a new presidential order that protects them against deportation through March 31, 2010. The extension of "Deferred Enforced Departure" (DED) affects approximately 3,500 Liberian nationals who had held TPS as of September 30, 2007.The U.S. government grants TPS to certain foreign nationals already in the country whom the government has determined cannot return home because of an extended armed conflict or environmental disaster. President George W. Bush ended TPS for Liberians in 2007, saying the political situation in Liberia had stabilized. Bush then granted Liberians 18 months of DED.
- Read Obama's extension of Deferred Enforced Departure.
U.S. Immigration Law for Northern Mariana Islands. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has delayed implementation of U.S. immigration law in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) until November 28. CNMI, a U.S. territory in the North Pacific, was to begin transitioning to U.S. immigration law on June 1. CNMI has had its own immigration system since 1976. Critics said requiring CNMI to adopt U.S. immigration law would hurt the commonwealth's economy, which heavily depends on foreign-born workers. According to the Government Accountability Office, foreign workers represented two-thirds of all CNMI workers in 2005 and were especially prevalent in garment manufacturing and tourism, two of the commonwealth's biggest industries.
- Read the DHS press release on the delay in CNMI's transition to U.S. immigration law.
- Read the GAO report on U.S. immigration law and CNMI.
Maryland Bill on Driver's Licenses. Maryland will no longer grant driver's licenses to unauthorized immigrants under a bill the state legislature has approved and that Governor Martin O'Malley is expected to sign. The bill, which brings Maryland into compliance with the federal security law known as REAL ID, states that beginning June 1, all new applicants for Maryland driver's licenses must provide proof of legal immigration status. Maryland residents who already have driver's licenses and cannot show proof of legal status will be able to renew their licenses, but only until July 1, 2015. The measure passed on the last day of the legislative session.
- Read the Maryland State Senate's final draft of the bill.
- Visit the MPI Data Hub for the latest stats on immigrants in Maryland.
Ruling on Unauthorized Students in Maryland. County commissioners in Frederick County, Maryland, cannot ask public schools to collect information about the immigration status of students, according to a Maryland State Board of Education ruling. The board ruled that assessing the financial impact of educating unauthorized students was not a valid public purpose for collecting immigration-status information. Its decision relied heavily on the 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, which established the right to K-12 public education in the United States regardless of immigration status.
- Read the Maryland State Board of Education decision.
- Read the Supreme Court's decision in Plyler v. Doe.
- Visit the MPI Data Hub for the latest stats on immigrants in Maryland.
Illinois E-Verify Law Invalid. An Illinois law prohibiting employers from participating in the federal E-Verify program is invalid because it violated the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, a US District Court judge has ruled. In 2007, Illinois forbade employers from enrolling in the E-Verify system until the system could definitively confirm all employees' work eligibility within three days. E-Verify allows employers to check whether employees are authorized to work by entering their names and Social Security numbers into a federal database.
- Read the U.S. District Court decision.
- Visit the MPI Data Hub for the latest stats on immigrants in Illinois.
Legal Status and Public Benefits in Nebraska. A new Nebraska lawwill require state and local agencies to verify the legal status of most applicants for public benefits beginning October 1. The verification requirement will not apply, however, to individuals needing emergency medical care or applying for short-term cash assistance. The new law also says public employers and contractors in Nebraska must use the federal E-Verify database to check whether new employees are authorized to work. A provision to require all of the state's private businesses to enroll in E-Verify did not make it into the final version of the bill. Read the new Nebraska law.
- Visit the MPI Data Hub for the latest stats on immigrants in Nebraska.