Before Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Chicago) even stepped up to the microphone Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C. to kick off the introduction of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP), he had come under attack from both the left and the right. The conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) called the proposal “absolutely ridiculous” for providing a path to legalize some 12 million illegal immigrants, and the Immigration Coalition criticized the legalization for not providing “Full Amnesty.” That was a little taste of what’s ahead, an inauspicious, if predictable beginning for yet another effort to change the nation’s broken immigration system.
Over the next couple of months, a good cop, bad cop scenario is likely to play out. While the bill announced Tuesday by Gutierrez and packed roomful of House Democrats has the strong backing of Latino, labor, and civil rights groups, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senator from New York is said to be working on legislation that will be far more punitive that the Gutierrez proposal. Proponents of immigration reform would like to work out a compromise.
Here’s an outline of what are likely to be the most controversial aspects of the House bill announced at the packed news conference. These highlights are based on summaries of the legislation available here and here.
1. “EARNED LEGALIZATION”
The bill lays out a couple of steps to reach citizenship. An illegal immigrant must first qualify for “conditional non immigrant status (good for six years). After that he or she can apply for a green card to become a permanent resident (eligible for full citizenship). To become a “conditional non immigrant,” applicants must:
- Establish they’ve lived in the United States and have contributed to the country through employment, education, military service, or other volunteer/community service
- complete criminal and security background checks (those with a “serious” criminal history are ineligible for the program)
- pay a $500 fine and other fees. Lying on a statement or falsifying records can result in a five year prison sentence.
To go from a conditional non immigrant to green card status, an applicant must:
- register for the draft (if applicable)
- meet English and civics requirements
- undergo a medical exam
- pay all taxes
- demonstrate U.S. residency.
The bill also provides funding for community groups and lawyers who help migrants adjust their status.
The Controversy Over “Earned Legalization”
The “legalization” aspect of comprehensive immigration reform doomed the last go-round in 2007. Critics are not persuaded by any form of what they consider “amnesty,” regardless of criteria. Conservatives consider Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program in 1986 his “big mistake.” Previous proposals have been tougher and have included “touchback” requirements that would have illegal migrants go back to their countries and then return. The ranking Republican member of the Judiciary committee, Lamar Smith, said: “Allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay and take jobs away from citizens and legal immigrants is like giving a burglar a key to the house. Illegal immigrants currently occupy eight million jobs. Those stolen jobs rightfully belong to citizens and legal immigrants.”said: “Allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay and take jobs away from citizens and legal immigrants is like giving a burglar a key to the house. Illegal immigrants currently occupy eight million jobs. Those stolen jobs rightfully belong to citizens and legal immigrants.”
2. “FUTURE FLOWS”
Provisions to allow for “future flows” of workers have been a big concern for the business community. The bill would:
- essentially expand annual caps on temporary skilled workers
- remove visa backlogs
- require employers using temporary worker programs to show they tried to hire American workers
- give the Department of Labor more authority to investigate claims of visa fraud
- crack down on dishonest recruiters
- create a new independent federal agency known as the Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets to “provide researched, unbiased, accurate recommendations for future flows of workers.” The Commission will have three years to come up with recommendations. During that time, the government will issue 300,000 “Prevent Unauthorized Migration (PUM) visas that will be distributed “to persons from sending countries of unauthorized migration to the United States to be distributed on a percentage basis through a lottery system.”
The Controversy Over “Future Flows”
Business groups will be pleased that caps for temporary workers are expanded, but disappointed that the Labor Department will be conducting more inspections. Industry organizations have pushed for a better mechanism to allow them to import workers, so they will embrace aspects of the bill providing for more “future flows.” The labor commission plan is patterned after a proposal made by the progressive Economic Policy Institute and supported by organized labor. Business has opposed the idea, afraid their hands will be tied by unwelcome requirements. Conservative groups such as FAIR oppose any effort to increase immigration.
3. ENFORCEMENT AND HUMAN RIGHTS
The bill would:
- repeal the federal program that allows local police agencies to enforce federal immigration laws [the 287(g) program].
- require more humane treatment of migrant detainees
- set up a commission to investigate and report on compliance in migrant detention centers
- make sure that social service agencies, translators, and legal services were available during raids
- prevent families with children from being separated
- provide work visas for detainees who complain their employers retaliated against them
- crack down on labor recruiters by requiring employers to identify all recruiters they used and make the employers responsible for the recruiters’ actions.
The Controversy Over Enforcement and Human Rights
Once again, labor and human rights groups will be pleased with the protections provided by the bill. Employers’ groups will see various of the requirements as burdensome, and anti-immigration groups like FAIR will view the proposals as designed to reward bad behavior.
4. EMPLOYMENT STATUS VERIFICATION
While the bill prohibits the creation of a national identification card, at the same time, it:
- sets up an employment verification system for employers to verify each new hire’s authorization to work. The new system will eventually apply to all workers and all new hires, and will be rolled out in phases, beginning with critical infrastructure employers and large employers.
- It would provide civil penalties for employers who do not comply with the requirements under the new system and establish “serious criminal penalties for knowingly hiring unauthorized aliens.”
- has anti-discrimination provisions that would forbid employers from using the system to discriminate against applicants or employees on the basis of nationality.
The Controversy Over Employment Status Verification
Designed to appeal to a law and order constituency, the business community has complained that an E-Verify system is costly, burdensome, and unreliable. Some in organized labor are endorsing the verification proposal, while others are worried it could lead to firings and displacement. Unlike previous employer sanction measures, this does have anti-discrimination provisions. Formal mechanisms to verify employment status could backfire. Employers willing to take a risk could avoid them altogether, driving even more illegal migrant workers into an informal economy.
Bottom line: The conservation Federation for American Immigration Reform has described the immigration reform proposal as “a fire sale on American citizenship and American jobs.” In a press release issued Tuesday, FAIR said “the Democratic leadership and the White House, seems to be focused on political payoffs for a narrow group of amnesty obsessed constituencies…. If congressional leaders were surprised by the intensity of public opposition to amnesty legislation in 2007, when unemployment hovered around 4.6 percent, they had better brace themselves for an even stronger reaction in 2010.”
I quote FAIR, not as endorsement of their views or fiery rhetoric, but as an indication of the uphill battle that is looming for progressives. Linking opposition to immigration reform to unemployment was surely not an accidental reference on FAIR’s part. Anti-immigrant sentiment typically rises during tough economic times, and, although some public surveys give cause for optimism, there is also a large undercurrent of hatred, fear, and bigotry. It’s likely to be an ugly battle, one that may not before resolved before the next presidential election.