With Congress now back in session after a holiday break, lawmakers appear ready to start debating the details of immigration reform legislation. A bipartisan “gang of eight” senators is on track to introduce a comprehensive bill within the next week, according to Senator Charles Schumer (NY-D), one of its members. The group reportedly has reached agreement on several major provisions, while other somewhat less prominent issues have yet to be resolved.
The package is expected to address the following:
Pathway to Citizenship
In December 2010, Congress rejected the DREAM Act when Republican opposition denied supporters the 60 Senate votes needed to overcome a filibuster. The legislation would have provided individuals who were brought to the United States without documentation as children a way to become U.S. citizens through temporary residency and an education or military service requirement. Following the high Latino turnout in the 2012 elections, opposition to such a measure has quieted down, and it is expected to be part of the agreement. (See the November 2010 Congressional Digest on “The DREAM Act.”)
Guest Worker Program
The AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have negotiated a new guest worker program for immigrants who work in low-skill jobs in such areas as construction, hotels, restaurants, food processing, and manufacturing. Under their proposal, up to 200,000 visas a year eventually would be granted to U.S. companies looking to hire immigrants for low-skill jobs, with no more than 15,000 of the visas to go to construction companies. Guest workers would be able to seek permanent status after a year. The Senate group plans to adopt the proposed language.
Agricultural employers and farmworker representatives have been working to shape an agreement on a pathway to legal residency for undocumented immigrant farmworkers. Under the current H-2A visa program, workers are sponsored and under contract to a specific employer. Farmworker advocates say that system has enabled some employers to exploit workers with the threat of dismissal and deportment. Under a new visa program, farmworkers would be allowed to work in the United States legally, travel across State lines, and eventually become eligible for a green card. Two remaining issues of contention relate to wages and restrictions on the number of future workers.
Business groups want more green cards to be available for skilled, high-tech workers, but some others are concerned that such visas would come at the expense of family unity. Instead, they favor expanding the overall number of visas and allowing new foreign workers to bring their families with them when they move to the United States.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (VT-D) has introduced legislation along with Senator Susan Collins (ME-R) to permit American citizens to sponsor same-sex “permanent partners” applying for legal residency in the United States, just as heterosexual married couples are currently allowed to do under the law. Other Democratic group of eight members support the measure, which is likely to be included in the new package.
Although Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Janet Napolitano said in March that the U.S. border is as “secure as it’s ever been,” some in Congress are demanding that border security verification precede implementation of any plan to put undocumented immigrants on a pathway to potential legalization. Senator John Cornyn (TX-R), a gang of eight member, and Representative Michael McCaul (TX-R) have introduced the Border Security Results Act to set stricter standards by which DHS would determine whether portions of the U.S. border are secure.
Immigration reform is widely considered to have the best chance of passage of any major legislation this year; however, a bipartisan group of eight House members is also working on a reform package that is expected to be significantly different from the Senate bill. If the two bills pass their respective chambers, they will have to be reconciled before a final version is agreed to and sent to President Obama for his signature.