Senate Approves Scaled-Back Immigration Bill, President Calls for National Guard on Border
The Senate passed a historic immigration bill on May 25, after approving a number of amendments limiting the scope of the bill's legalization and temporary worker programs, and boosting its border security measures. The vote on the bill's passage was 62 to 36.
The most recent Senate debate began on May 22, after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) resolved conflicts over the number of amendments the Senate would discuss and which senators would represent the immigration bill in a conference committee with the House. The leaders agreed to send 14 Republicans and 12 Democrats to a committee, including seven Republicans and five Democrats from the Judiciary Committee. They also agreed to discuss a "considerable number" of the hundreds of proposed amendments to the bill.
During debate, senators rejected proposals to eliminate the temporary worker program, block temporary workers from adjusting to permanent status, delay legalization until border enforcement was increased, or deny legalized immigrants Social Security benefits for work performed without authorization.
However, the Senate approved a number of amendments that significantly altered the scope of the proposed programs. Among the amendments passed were:
- An amendment sponsored by Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and John Cornyn (R-TX) to block unauthorized immigrants with a felony or three misdemeanor convictions from obtaining legal status. Those who have ignored court orders of deportation would also be excluded from legalization unless they received a waiver from the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Such a waiver would be permitted if individuals could prove they never received notice of a deportation hearing, if "exceptional circumstances" had prevented a court appearance, or if deportation would cause "extreme hardship" to their family.
- An amendment by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to reduce annual limits on the number of (H-2C) temporary workers who could enter the country from 325,000 to 200,000 and strip provisions allowing for annual adjustment of this cap based on the previous year's demand. Demand for the visas could fall below 200,000 in any given year, however, and therefore not all visas would be used.
- An amendment by Senator Bingaman to set the cap on employment-based permanent immigrants indefinitely at 650,000 per year, including the spouses and children of principal applicants. Previously, the bill would have allowed 450,000 employment-based permanent immigrants to enter during each of the first 10 years following the bill's passage and to bring their spouses and children without regard to numerical limitation. After 10 years the cap would have lowered to 290,000.
- An amendment by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to strengthen 70 miles of existing fence near San Diego and in parts of Arizona, and build 300 additional miles of triple-layered fence along the Southwest border as well as 500 miles of vehicle barriers.
- An amendment by Senator Cornyn to remove a provision that would have allowed temporary workers to self-sponsor for a green card after working four years in the country. However, the Senate later passed an amendment offered by Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to allow temporary workers to self-petition if they prove they are currently employed and the government certifies there are not sufficient U.S. workers to fill the position.
- An amendment by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) to declare English the "national language" of the United States and to declare that no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English, except where already provided by law. The Senate also approved an amendment by Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) to declare English the "common unifying language of the United States" but also stipulated that such a declaration would not diminish or expand existing rights to bilingual services.
- An amendment by Senator Cornyn to charge unauthorized immigrants applying for legalization or immigrants applying for the temporary worker program an additional fee of $750 per principal applicant and $100 per dependent to create a State Impact Assistance Account. This account would provide grants to states to fund health care and education for noncitizens. During the legalization program passed in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), the government provided $4 billion in similar grants to states.
- An amendment by Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) to fund improvements in border and interior security by assessing an additional $500 fee on unauthorized immigrants participating in the bill's legalization program.
- An amendment by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Bingaman to strengthen border security by allowing up to 1,000 Border Patrol agents to be sent to a state if the governor declares a border emergency. The amendment also calls for the addition of 3,000 Border Patrol agents each year, rather than 2,000 per year as stipulated in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, as well as an increase in the number of vehicles and electronic equipment available to the Border Patrol.
- An amendment by Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) to reserve 36,667 of the 55,000 visas allocated to the diversity visa program (up from the current 50,000) for immigrants with advanced degrees in science, mathematics, technology, or engineering.
- An amendment by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to provide a substitute to title III, regarding the unlawful employment of immigrants. The amendment would set fines for the employment of unauthorized immigrants at $20,000. Eighteen months after the bill's passage, employers would be required to verify the work eligibility of all new hires within three days, using an electronic system. Job applicants would have 10 days to challenge the determination made by the system. If DHS could not confirm that determination within 30 days, the applicant would be considered eligible to work.
The Senate also approved an amendment that would delay a requirement that U.S. residents reentering the United States from Canada or Mexico, and Canadians entering the United States, show a passport or a high-tech identification card. The deadline, currently set for January 1, 2008, would be pushed back to June 1, 2009. The Departments of State and Homeland Security have not developed a new identification card for these purposes.
- To read the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S. 2611) click here.
Seeking a middle ground in the nation's heated immigration debate, President Bush called for the deployment of 6,000 National Guard units along the U.S.-Mexico border during his first Oval Office appearance addressing domestic policy, on May 15. The National Guard units will provide intelligence, surveillance, training, and logistical assistance to the Border Patrol along the country's Southwest border but will have no direct involvement in law enforcement efforts.
The president also made his clearest public statement to date of support for the legalization of unauthorized immigrants. He called for a path to permanent status and citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who have strong ties to the country. He restated that unauthorized immigrants would have to "get in line" behind those waiting to enter the country legally but did not clarify the meaning.
According to the White House, the National Guard units will be deployed beginning in June 2006, for an initial period of one year, until new technology and Border Patrol agents are placed along the border. The National Guard units will be deployed as part of their regular training, lasting two to three weeks, and then rotate out. The federal government will cover the cost of the placement, but governors would have control over the troops in their state.
Senators from both parties, as well as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D) initially criticized the plan, questioning the cost and the prudence of deploying troops to the border during a time of war, and calling for a more permanent solution to the problem of illegal immigration.
Others dismissed the president's plan as a political move aimed to garner support from conservatives who have been critical of the president's support of temporary worker and legalization programs.
The day after the speech, President Bush requested $1.95 billion to fund the initiative. He has asked Congress to divert the $1.9 billion the Senate earmarked out of an emergency war and hurricane spending bill toward increasing the number of Border Patrol agents and building support infrastructure along the border.
During the Oval Office address, Bush also said that immigrants working under temporary status should be issued a high-tech, tamper-proof identification card to allow employers to discern whether potential employees have work authorization in the country. He promised to increase the Border Patrol by an additional 6,000 agents by the end of 2008, though the placement of additional Border Patrol agents will depend on Congressional authorization of funding.
- To read the President's May 15 speech, click here.
Over 9,000 Burmese refugees living in a camp in Thailand will no longer be blocked from resettlement in the United States under an antiterrorism measure, after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a waiver on May 3.
The Real ID Act of 2005 bars refugees who have provided "material support" to terrorists from resettlement in the United States. However, the USA Patriot Act adopted a broad definition of a terrorist group, one that applies even to some groups the U.S. government supports. In addition, Real ID defines "material support" so broadly that even providing assistance to someone who belongs to a "terrorist" group under threat or coercion can disqualify a person from eligibility for refugee status in the United States.
While the provision has blocked entry for many refugee groups, including Colombians, Cubans, Liberians, Hmong, and Somalis, the waiver only applies to certain Burmese refugees in the Tham Hin camp in Thailand, some of whom were supporters of the Karen National Union, which fought against Burma's military government.
The waiver was signed following months of debate among the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security concerning both humanitarian and national security concerns.
- To read a Department of State press release on the waiver, click here.
DHS Inspector General. Nearly 35,000 more detention beds, at an estimated cost of $1.1 billion, would be required for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to end the immigration enforcement practice of "catch and release," according to a new report by the DHS inspector general. "Catch and release" refers to the practice of issuing unauthorized immigrants apprehended at the border notices to appear in court, and releasing them into the United States; many such immigrants never appear for their court date. The White House has proposed spending $386 million to build 6,700 new detention beds to hold immigrants awaiting a court hearing, but, according to the report, this would not be enough to detain all "high-risk" unauthorized immigrants, including those with criminal records and those from countries of special interest or countries deemed to be state sponsors of terrorism.
- To read the Inspector General's report, click here.
Legal Orientation Program. The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) is expanding the reach of its Legal Orientation Program (LOP), which aims to provide legal assistance to individuals in immigration court proceedings. LOP currently operates in six immigration detention facilities and will now be expanded to 12. The program allows local nonprofit organizations to provide explanations about immigration court procedures and basic legal information to detained immigrants. LOP has been found to increase the rate at which detained individuals seek legal representation and to speed immigration proceedings.
- To read a press release about the expansion of the Legal Orientation Program, click here.