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Senate Debates Temporary Worker Program and Path to Legal Status for the Unauthorized
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-6 on March 27 to approve a wide-reaching proposal for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a temporary worker program with a path to lawful permanent resident (LPR) status. The proposal also provides a way for unauthorized immigrants to adjust to legal status but only after they fulfill certain requirements.
Under an agreement reached March 28, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) brought his own border security bill to the Senate floor for debate on March 30. However, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) was allowed to offer the Judiciary Committee’s proposal as an alternative. The Senate will proceed by discussing the full range of reforms discussed in the committee’s bill.
Debate on a guest worker program and legalization provisions is expected to be contentious, due to sharp divisions between senators wanting increased enforcement and those favoring a temporary worker program and a way for unauthorized immigrants to legalize their status.
- To read the Judiciary Committee's proposal, currently before the Senate as an amendment to S. 2454, click here.
- To read Frist’s Securing America’s Borders Act (S. 2454), click here.
Provisions of the Judiciary Committee Proposal
Enforcement: The proposal would add up to 14,000 new Border Patrol agents, 1,000 internal investigators, and 1,250 port of entry inspectors over the course of five years. It would increase detention bed space by 10,000, and authorize a "virtual wall" of unmanned vehicles, cameras, and sensors along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Guest Worker Program: The program would be open to 400,000 workers initially, who would be able to work for up to six years after paying a $500 fee, passing a background check, and proving they have a job waiting for them in the United States. They could apply to adjust to lawful permanent resident status after six months if sponsored by their employer or through self-petition after four years of work. They would then be allowed to wait in line for a green card.
Unauthorized Immigrants: Unauthorized immigrants could apply for three-year temporary status, renewable one time if they prove a steady work history in the United States since January 7, 2004, pay taxes owed for previous work, pass a background check, and pay a $1,000 fine. They would be eligible to apply for permanent legal status in the fourth year of their temporary status if they pay another $1,000 fine, have a clean criminal record, and prove their employment record, English ability, and knowledge of U.S. civics. They could then get in line for a green card.
Limits on Permanent Immigration: The annual cap on employment-based green cards for permanent immigrants would increase from 140,000 to 290,000, and a greater portion would be allocated for low-skilled workers than in the current system. Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens would be exempted from the 480,000 annual cap on family-based immigration. The per-country limits on family-sponsored and employment-based immigrants would increase from seven percent to 10 percent of each category of immigration. Also, unused green cards from one year would be made available for use the following year.
Farm workers: A five-year test program would grant 1.5 million unauthorized farm workers a "blue card" visa that would provide temporary work authorization for five years. The workers would be required to work in the fields for at least 100 but not more than 150 days per year. If they follow these rules, they would be allowed to apply for permanent status after paying a fee and back taxes.
Unauthorized Students: Unauthorized immigrant students who 1) entered the country before they were 16 years old, 2) have been in the country at least five years, and 3) have a high school diploma or GED would be allowed to remain in the country for six years under conditional permanent resident status in order to attend college or join the military. They would earn full-fledged permanent resident status after successfully completing two years of college or military service. This provision would also permit states to charge such students in-state tuition at state universities (Note: these provisions were previously introduced to Congress as the DREAM Act in 2005).
- Shielding social service organizations from prosecution for providing aid to unauthorized immigrants, in reaction to the House bill, which would make it a crime to assist unauthorized immigrants;
- Incarcerating immigrants found to be present illegally, rather than releasing them pending immigration hearings;
- Providing financial assistance to state and local law enforcement departments that participate in federally sponsored training programs for the arrest and detention of unauthorized immigrants; and
- Maintaining current provisions on the criminality of unauthorized status, rather than making unauthorized status in the country a felony, as the House bill would.
The committee did not address some topics, leaving them to be addressed on the Senate floor. These issues include a worker verification system to prevent the employment of unauthorized immigrants, and adjustment of the cap on H-1B (high-skilled) temporary visas. The Senate Finance Committee will debate worksite enforcement options prior to Senate debate.
Judiciary Committee members voting in favor of the bill were:
Senators Mike DeWine (R-OH); Lindsey Graham (R-SC); Sam Brownback (R-KS); Arlen Specter (R-PA); Patrick Leahy (D-VT); Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA); Joseph Biden (DE-D); Herbert Kohl (D-WI); Dianne Feinstein (D-CA); Russell Feingold (D-WI); Charles Schumer (D-NY); and Richard Durbin (D-IL).
Judiciary Committee members voting against the bill were:
Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT); Charles Grassley (R-IA); Jon Kyl (R-AZ); Jeff Sessions (R-AL); John Cornyn (R-TX), and Tom Coburn (R-OK).
Reactions to the Proposals
Any bill passed by the full Senate will have to be reconciled in a conference committee with the House bill passed in December 2005, which focuses solely on increased border security and other law enforcement measures (for more details on House bill H.R. 4437, see the January 2006 Policy Beat).
Seventy-one members of the House have signed a letter saying that the Judiciary Committee's recommendations are "fundamentally incompatible" with the House's version of immigration reform.
However, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) has indicated the House might be open to a guest worker program when the Senate and House eventually reconcile their immigration bills. "Our first priority is to protect the borders," he told reporters on March 29. "We also know there is a need in some sectors of this economy for a guest-worker program."
Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said on March 27 that President Bush was "pleased to see the Senate moving forward on legislation….It is a difficult issue that will require compromise and tough choices," he said, "but the important thing at this point is that the process is moving forward."
In the days leading up to the Judiciary Committee vote, advocates for immigration reform organized rallies around the country. In Los Angeles, a March 25 event drew an estimated 500,000 protesters while at least 100,000 marchers in Chicago protested on March 10, holding handmade signs with statements such as, "We are workers, not terrorists."
Over 30,000 immigrants gathered on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on March 7 to protest the House immigration enforcement bill, and 2,000 unauthorized Irish immigrants from New York and Boston converged on the nation's capitol the following week, calling for a path to legalization. Immigration protests have also been held in Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco, Trenton, NJ, and Columbus, OH.
Immigration activists are planning a 10-city protest on April 10, which would pull tens of thousands of immigrant workers from their jobs, in hopes of highlighting the country's reliance on immigrant labor. Similar protests were held on February 14 in Philadelphia, drawing 5,000 immigrants, and on March 23 in Milwaukee, WI, drawing 10,000.
Bush Reiterates Immigration Stance
As the Senate geared up to begin its immigration debate, President Bush reiterated his position on immigration reform, pushing Congress to include a temporary worker program in its immigration reform bill along with increased border and interior enforcement.
Bush met with agricultural, religious, and business leaders, and immigration experts on March 23 to discuss immigration reform and attended a naturalization ceremony on March 27. During a question-and-answer session with the press on March 20 and again during the naturalization ceremony, Bush outlined the three broad principals he believes should be part of immigration reform.
He stated that immigration reform should include practical enforcement of the border, including hiring more Border Patrol agents, devoting resources to alien-detection devices that support the Border Patrol's work, speeding the removal of unauthorized entrants, and ensuring that those who are detained at the border are not later released into the country.
Bush said this enforcement should be matched with interior enforcement, and he highlighted his proposal to double the resources for worksite enforcement in the 2007 budget.
Finally, he called for a temporary worker program, which he said would make the immigration system "more rational, orderly, and secure." He said that a temporary worker program would help secure the border by allowing intending workers to enter legally and freeing law enforcement agents to focus on criminals and terrorists.
Bush stated his opposition to "amnesty," asserting that temporary immigrants who wanted to apply for green cards should have to get in line behind those already waiting. He said Congress may decide to raise immigration quotas from certain countries.
Bush has repeatedly emphasized the country's history as a nation of immigrants, stating that the current immigration system, in which people risk their lives to sneak into the country and work, is "not American."
Policy Beat in Brief
Deportees to China. China is refusing to take back an estimated 39,000 citizens who have been denied immigration to the United States, according to an Associated Press interview with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff on March 14. Last year, China readmitted only 800 people, leaving a backlog of tens of thousands of Chinese citizens illegally in the United States. Most of these immigrants have been released on bond or under an electronic monitoring program, while 687 are being held in immigration detention centers at a cost of $95 a person per day. While other countries are also refusing to take back citizens, China has the largest backlog of citizens with deportation orders, according to Chertoff.
SSA-DHS Cooperation. Some data held by the Social Security Administration (SSA) could help DHS identify and investigate workplaces hiring unauthorized immigrants if better information-sharing procedures were implemented, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). SSA is not currently authorized to share taxpayer records for worksite-enforcement purposes and would need to seek legislative authority to do so. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officials have expressed concern that sharing taxpayer records with other agencies might have a chilling effect on tax payments.
- To read the GAO report "Social Security Numbers: Coordinated Approach to SSN Data Could Help Reduce Unauthorized Work," click here.
- To read another GAO report detailing SSA's procedures for issuing SSNs to foreign-born residents, "Social Security Administration: Procedures for Issuing Numbers and Benefits to the Foreign-Born," click here.
Hispanics in North Carolina. North Carolina's Hispanic population adds $9 billion to the state's overall economy through taxes, labor, and consumer spending, while generating a $61 million fiscal deficit, according to a recent study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fifty-eight percent of the state's 600,913 Hispanics are foreign born; of the foreign-born population, about three-quarters (roughly 266,000) are unauthorized. Looking more narrowly at effects on the state budget, the study found that all Hispanic residents (native and foreign born) pay about $756 million in taxes each year but cost the state about $817 million in education, healthcare, and correctional services. The net cost to taxpayers then is $61 million, or $102 per Hispanic resident per year.
- To read the UNC report, "The Economic Impact of the Hispanic Population on the State of North Carolina," click here.