Thursday, May 30, 2013

Immigration Reform in the U.S.A. - The Legislation

Today is Thursday, May 30, 2013.

Today I'd like to talk about the immigration reform bills that are being drafted in Congress, and how passage of an immigration reform bill might benefit the United States. I will be talking more about the immigrants, themselves, in future posts.

The process for passage of a bill in the United States Congress typically goes like this:  A bill is introduced either in the Senate or the House of Representatives.  It is debated and modified.  After this process, a vote is taken, and if the bill passes, then it is sent to the other house for a similar process of debate.  If the bill is altered in the other house, then it has to be sent back to the house of origin.  Otherwise, if it is passed, it goes to the President of the United States, who either signs the bill or vetoes it.  Nowadays, the Democrats have a slim majority in the Senate and the Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives.  When different parties have majorities in different houses, there is a whole lot of wrangling going on.  As we saw in the health care debate, each house came up with its own version of the health care bill, which dragged out the process quite a little bit.  This is happening with the proposed immigration reform legislation, as well.  In addition, although both parties have used the filibuster to block legislation, the Republicans have outdone themselves in the use of the filibuster in recent years.

Everyone seems to agree that the system of immigration in this country needs to be fixed.  The question is how, and there are several very delicate issues involved.  In addition, a lot of misinformation is making the rounds in the media and on the Internet.  Hard facts about undocumented immigrants are hard to come by because...., well, they're undocumented.

The cost of apprehending, detaining, processing and deporting one individual is $23,480, according to a report in 2010.  A total of 409,849 people were deported in 2012.  If you do the math, that's over $9.6 billion dollars.  The immigration reform bills in Congress recognize that if we stop deporting undocumented immigrants who have no crime record, we could save a bundle of money.  The U.S. will continue to deport any undocumented immigrant who has a criminal record, no matter what reform bill passes.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have bipartisan committees working on immigration reform legislation.  Each of these committees is nicknamed the "Gang of Eight".  In the Senate, the Gang of Eight is led by Sen. Chuck Shumer, D-NY, and includes Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, Richard Durbin, D-IL, Bob Menendez, D-NJ, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL.

The Senate version of the bill provides for the following:
* a path to citizenship for those immigrants already in the United States; it will take at least 13 years to gain citizenship.
* improvements in border patrol and tracking of immigrants.
* permanent residency (green card) for undocumented immigrants granted only after legal immigrants waiting for resident status have been served.
* a special path to citizenship for agricultural workers.
* reducing visa backlogs and streamlining the process of getting permanent residency for immigrants who have graduated with advanced degrees from U.S. universities in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
* an expanded and improved employment verification system to confirm work authorization.  This will be known as E-Verify, and it must be in place within five years, or the legalization program will end.  This seems a lot like the "sequester" provision in the budget bill.
* improved work visa options for low-skill workers (mainly agricultural workers).

The Senate bill is expected to be voted on sometime in June, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he is pretty sure he can get the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster that would stall the bill. He is counting on all the Democrats and at least 8 of the Republicans in Congress to vote in favor of the bill. 

The "Gang of Eight" in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-CA, also includes Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-IL, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-CA, Rep. John Yarmuth, D-KY, Rep. John Carter, R-TX, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-ID, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-TX, and Rep. Maria Diaz-Balart, R-FL.

The House Gang of Eight has recently agreed on the sticking points of their bill, which will be notably more conservative than the Senate version.  Here are some differences:
* No special path to citizenship is provided, but anyone whose status is legalized has the same chance as any other legal immigrant to apply for citizenship.
* It will take 15 years to attain citizenship, 2 more years than in the Senate version.
* anyone who gains legal status will be required to purchase health care.
* In one respect, the House bill is more liberal than the Senate version: It insists on an expansion of temporary work visas, by which tens of thousands more low-skill workers would be granted permission to work in U.S. factories and farms.

Now that they have agreed on the major points in their bill, the House hopes to have their version fully written by the time the Senate version is voted on.  The House version will hopefully be ready to vote on by August.

There is some speculation that even though two versions of an immigration reform bill will be passed this summer, the process of merging them into one bill that can be approved by Congress will very likely end only after the midterm elections in the fall of 2014.  Meanwhile, the United States will continue to spend billions of dollars unnecessarily deporting undocumented immigrants, and the status of a lot of people remains in limbo.  :-/

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