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Election Afterthoughts and Immigration Reform by Executive Action

imm_2I’ve taken some time to digest the 2014 midterm election results, and specifically in terms of what they mean for the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform.  At first blush, it doesn’t look great.  At second blush too.

Last week, however, the New York Times published (in my opinion) an excellent editorial, making the case why President Obama should go it alone and use his executive authority to give temporary protection to potentially millions of aliens unlawfully present in the United States.  I am well aware that this is a hotbed issue, and people have legitimately strong arguments on both sides of it.  I think the President should go for it, and it looks like he’s about to, perhaps as early as this week (and we’re informed not later than the end of the year).

To be honest, I have mixed emotions about President Obama.  But the reality is, the New York Times is absolutely correct in saying that “[s]ix fruitless years is time enough for anyone to realize that waiting for Congress to help fix immigration is delusional.”  It’s actually been longer than six years.  President George W. Bush tried for comprehensive immigration reform during his presidency, and that fell apart.  Others before him have tried and failed as well.

I’ve made this point before, but it really is worth repeating.  Our immigration system is broken.  Is it really practical to think that we’re going to deport 11 to 13 million aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States?  No.  Does it make sense that we educate foreign nationals at some of our best institutions of higher education, and then tell them that they can’t stay here because there’s no visa, either temporary or permanent, that allows them to?  No. Our immigration system is broken, and our national leaders, with the input of relevant stakeholders, should discuss, debate and implement comprehensive immigration reform.

Unfortunately, a legislative fix does not appear in the offing.  Thus, we’re now hearing (and reading) that President Obama may use his executive power to prevent the removal (commonly known as deportation) of anywhere between 3 and 5 million aliens who are unlawfully present in the United States.  The specifics are apparently still being worked out, but I’m hearing that those who are the parents of U.S. citizen children, or the spouses of U.S. citizens, will be allowed to remain in the United States, and even obtain permission to work, indefinitely.

Just so I am clear.  These individuals will not be afforded lawful permanent residence (i.e., a Green Card), nor will they be put on a path to citizenship.  Only Congress has the ability to make those types of changes (with, of course, the signature of the President).

This is not a perfect solution.  These individuals would (potentially) only be receiving a temporary reprieve from deportation.  Congress could change the law, or a future president could cancel President Obama’s program.  If that were to occur, those who participated in the program would be out in the open and thus exposed to removal.  Nevertheless, I think it’s a step in the right direction, and worth the risk for those aliens who would participate in it.

As the New York Times stated in its editorial, “[t]here will surely be intense debate when [President] Obama draws the lines that decide who might qualify for protection. Some simple questions should be his guide: Do the people he could help have strong bonds to the United States? Does deporting them serve the national interest? If it doesn’t, they should have a chance to stay.”  I agree.

Back to School, but Congress Still as Unproductive as Ever

I rec????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????ently took my five year old to his first day of kindergarten. He was pretty excited (and so was I for him). Now that the summer is officially behind us, our summer vacations are but a distant memory, our children are now back to school, and we are back to work.

I’m sure most of you know that our children must be in school no less than 180 days during the school year. I’m sure most of you, like me, work no fewer than 5 days a week (and often more). Do you know how many days Congress has been in session this year? Do you know how many days Congress has actually worked this year?

I remember when I used to work on Capitol Hill. Summertime at the office was fairly quiet as a rule. My boss would spend most of this time back in New York, occasionally coming back to Washington for one thing or another. It was pretty rare. Times have not changed, but our legislators certainly have.

When I worked on the Hill, I was admittedly a geek. I would go sit in the Senate gallery after work and watch bills being debated. Let me set the scene. If you’ve ever watched Congressional proceedings on C-SPAN, you might think that all the Senators or Representatives are intently listening to their colleague debate the merits of a bill. Nothing could be further from the truth. Typically the only people in the Senate or House chambers are the person speaking about a particular bill, a staffer sitting behind that particular legislator, one or two stenographers, a few congressional pages, whoever happens to be sitting in the chair person’s seat, and a few administrative folks who actually work for the Senate or the House. I imagine that if I was working on Capitol Hill today, I might have to find something else to do after work given that no Congress in modern history has passed fewer laws (to date anyway) than this one.

I read an interesting piece on the NBC News website recently that this particular Congress has been the least productive in modern history. Just prior to its August recess, “just 142 public bills [had] become law in this current Congress (2013-2014) – down from the 906 the 80th “Do-Nothing” Congress passed in 1947-48, and the 333 that were enacted during the Newt Gingrich-led 104th Congress of 1995-96.”

After coming back from their summer recess, Congress took care of a few things, and according to a recent article from NBC News, they’re now gone until November! “The U.S. House has been in session for roll call votes a total of 92 days in 2014 – or 35% of the year up until now. (They had “pro forma” sessions – without any legislative business – for an additional 25 days.) … The Senate’s been working slightly less, holding roll call votes on just 87 days this year, with an additional 30 days of “pro forma’ sessions, when most lawmakers aren’t in Washington.”

What about you and I? According to NBC News, “[t]hose of us working a typical 5-day work week, with public holidays, would have been clocking in for a total of somewhere around 181 days during that time.”

Incumbency is still a big plus for a legislator running for re-election, although arguably it’s a little less meaningful these days than it was before. We have important national issues that need our Congress’s attention, not the least of which is … wait, wait for it … Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR). The Los Angeles Times reported recently that although House Speaker John Boehner noticeably left immigration out of a speech made recently about the economy, he acknowledged during questions afterward that he thought that “immigration reform would help our economy.” Duh. So why can’t he get his party’s support in the House to pass meaningful immigration reform?

Instead, we’re left to wonder whether, and if so, when, President Obama will take executive action in lieu of congressionally passed (and supported) CIR. We can debate whether executive action in lieu of legislation is a good idea. Doing nothing, however, is a bad idea.

Goodbye 2013 : Hope for Immigration Reform in 2014?

imm_4Do you remember how hopeful everyone was in January?  “Now is the time.”  That’s what President Obama said on January 29, 2013 in Las Vegas when he introduced his four (4) part plan for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”).  In early July, the U.S. Senate passed a marked-up and amended version of the Gang of Eight’s “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” and we were off to the House of Representatives.  And that’s where we are today … still waiting for something … anything.

There’s a lot of discussion these days whether we’re ever going to have CIR (or any immigration reform for that matter).  I heard an interesting piece the other morning on National Public Radio (“NPR”), where Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a strong supporter of CIR, said he’s not concerned if CIR happens before the end of 2013.

“The real clock is this session of Congress doesn’t end until next December,” said Wilkes, who predicts that the House will vote on immigration bills by April or May in 2014. “This has been a long, long process for us, well over 20 years, and we’re not so impatient that we can’t wait four more months,” he added.  I suppose that’s encouraging.

But I am also hearing a lot of political chatter as to the likelihood of having CIR before next year’s congressional mid-term elections, during the 2016 presidential primary cycle, or ultimately even by the time the 2016 presidential elections take place.

In a nutshell, the analysis goes like this.  Although the Hispanic population today makes up 17 percent of the nation’s population and is the fastest-growing ethnic group, they disproportionately live in congressional districts represented by Democrats. So there’s no real incentive, at this point anyway, for Republican House members running for re-election in 2014 to support CIR if it’s not going to benefit them in their own district or, worse, potentially hurt them.

On to the Republican presidential primaries, where Republic presidential candidates will be focused on placating their conservative base (i.e., the voters in presidential primaries).  No chance for CIR at this point

Now we’re into 2016, where maybe a Republican presidential candidate (or dare I say the Republican party) will finally learn the lessons of 2012. (That’s three years from now in case you’re not counting.)

Speaking of lessons learned, former Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently went on CBS Morning to talk about life after the elections. During his comments, he stated that a significant shortcoming of his campaign was appealing to minority voters. (Really?) Interestingly, he took a somewhat different approach on immigration than he had during the campaign when he advocated “self-deportation.”  Romney said, “I don’t think those who come here illegally should jump to the front of the line, or be given a special deal — be rewarded for coming here illegally — but they should have a chance, just like anybody else, to get in line and become a citizen if they’d like to do so.”  While an admirable view, I think it’s a little too late coming from Governor Romney (but of course, we’re talking about lessons learned).

OK, so how about some potentially good news.  Last week Speaker Boehner (R-OH) made a hiring choice for his own staff that hopefully speaks to his seriousness to address immigration reform in 2014.  Roll Call reported that “Rebecca Tallent, who currently serves as director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), will join Boehner’s staff[.]  Before joining the BPC, Tallent held several senior staff positions with Sen. John McCain, including chief of staff.”

The Roll Call piece went on to say that “[d]uring her time with McCain, [Ms. Tallent] helped the Arizona Republican draft a handful of immigration overhaul measures, including the last big push McCain made with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy … in 2007. … Before working for McCain, she worked for former Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., a longtime advocate of overhauling the immigration system[.]”

CIR is very much overdue.  “Now [still] is the time.”  January seems so long ago, but I remain cautiously optimistic that the House will do something about CIR, albeit now likely in 2014.

Is Comprehensive Immigration Reform Dead?

droopy flagLast week, I attended a retirement luncheon for Bishop Howard Hubbard, Bishop of the Diocese of Albany for the past 36 years.  Bishop Hubbard and the late Sr. Maureen Joyce hired me in the summer of 2000 to set up and oversee an Office for Immigrant Services at Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Albany.  This office sees low and no income clients, many of whom cannot afford to walk into a private practitioner’s office.  Many of these (potential) clients also have immigration-related issues that would be well served by Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”).

While walking into the luncheon, Bishop Hubbard pulled me aside and asked how our numbers were in the office.  I told him we were as busy as ever, and that if CIR was signed into law, we would have to re-think our office’s ability to handle the anticipated increase in caseload.  When I said this, he looked at me curiously and said he thought that CIR was dead.  I responded that in light of current events in Washington (e.g., the government shutdown, raising the debt ceiling, the fumbled rollout of Obama Care, etc.), that CIR was not dead, but that the support for it was definitely muffled.  I hope I was right in saying that.

So what’s going on with CIR?  Well, we know that the Democratic leadership in the House introduced H.R. 15, a CIR bill generally modeled after the successful bipartisan Senate bill (except that the House Democrats’ bill does not include billions of dollars requiring hundreds of miles of new border fence, as the Senate bill did).  As of today, there were actually three Republican co-sponsors to H.R. 15: Rep. David Valadao (R-CA), Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Rep. Denham (R-CA).

In a statement released when he decided to co-sponsor H.R.15, Rep. Valadao stated: “I have been working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to find common ground on the issue of immigration reform.  Recently, I have focused my efforts on joining with likeminded Republicans in organizing and demonstrating to Republican Leadership broad support within the Party to address immigration reform in the House by the end of the year.  By supporting H.R. 15 I am strengthening my message: Addressing immigration reform in the House cannot wait. I am serious about making real progress and will remain committed to doing whatever it takes to repair our broken immigration system.”  (Finally, some common sense coming out of the House.)

You would think Republicans would have learned after the 2012 election debacle that CIR was a necessity.  You would also think that after Republicans took it on the chin in the media for their antics during the government shutdown that they would be looking for opportunities to curry favor with voters.  Public Policy Polling recently released new polls that looked at eight Congressional districts currently held by Republicans. The poll finds that while voters in each of these districts are unhappy with their Republican Representatives because of the government shutdown, the polls also found that “voters make it clear in each of these districts that they’ll be more likely to vote to reelect their Congressmen next year if they vote for immigration reform.”

“Now is the time.”  That’s what President Obama said on January 29, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada when he introduced his four (4) part plan for CIR.  When will Republicans get this?

House Democrats Pass H.R. 15 Bill for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

BorderSecurityImageIn July, the U.S. Senate passed a marked-up and amended version of the Gang of Eight’s “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” The House, for its part, has until last week taken a more piecemeal approach to Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”). The House Judiciary Committee and others have passed smaller immigration bills relating to border security, internal enforcement, guest workers, and high-tech visas. Notably, there was no path to citizenship (or even a lawful immigration status) in the House bills that passed for the eleven to thirteen million undocumented immigrants in the United States. That changed last week.

On October 2, the Democratic leadership in the House announced the introduction of H.R. 15, a CIR bill modeled after the successful bipartisan Senate bill, with one notable exception. The House Democrats’ bill does not include billions of dollars requiring hundreds of miles of new border fence, as the Senate bill did. Instead, the House bill would set specific goals for border enforcement.

The likelihood of this bill being passed as is (or perhaps even passing at all) is pretty slim. Nevertheless, it keeps the dialogue about CIR moving forward. Here are some highlights.

First, the House Democrats’ bill’s border-security measures are more goal-oriented than the Senate’s bill, as passed. The Senate bill would spend $30 billion to double the number of federal border agents, complete 700 miles of fencing, and expand radar and aerial drone surveillance along the border. The House Democrats’ bill, on the other hand, requires the Department of Homeland Security to create a detailed plan requiring the apprehension of ninety percent (90%) of illegal border-crossers in high-traffic areas within thirty three (33) months, and across the entire U.S.-Mexico border in five (5) years.

Second, both bills would grant legal status to around 7.7 million of the 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the United States.

Third, both bills would allow an additional five (5) million legal immigrants into the United States in the next five (5) years. The House Democrats’ bill, like the Senate bill, would revamp the system for permanent residency and the admission of temporary workers.

Fourth, both the House Democrats’ bill and the Senate bill would tighten employer enforcement of illegal immigration. Specifically, both bills would require employers to use a new version of E-Verify, an electronic system for determining the legal status of current and prospective employees.

And finally, both bills would include a various other changes to the immigration system, including reforming the immigration court and detention process, making it harder for immigrants to attain legal status if they commit certain crimes, and streamlining the political asylum process.

So is this much ado about nothing? Perhaps. House Democrats contend that their bill could pass if House Speaker John Boehner would allow it to come up for a vote. The problem is that Speaker Boehner has repeatedly said that no bill will receive a vote unless a majority of House GOP members support it. Asked if there was any chance Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor would put the bill on the House calendar, Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper replied, “No.”

It remains to be seen what the House will do with H.R. 15 or any other immigration bills that might be introduced in the House. Not withstanding the current dysfunction in Washington, D.C. (the government continues to be shut down as I write this), I continue to be cautiously optimistic that CIR is within Congress’s grasp.

“Documented”, a Film About a Pulitzer-Winning Journalist Who is Also an Undocumented Immigrant

UndocumentedFilmPostcardAnd now for something completely different.  I wish I went to the movies more often.  All those summer blockbusters (or busts)!  I actually haven’t been to the movies in ages.  I think that’s about to change.

Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took his first step on the national political stage when he publicly joined other tech leaders, civil rights activists and undocumented immigrants to call for the comprehensive overhaul of our nation’s immigration system.

Zuckerberg was at the West Coast premiere of Jose Antonio Vargas’s film “Documented,” a film that Vargas wrote and directed. Vargas, inarguably the most famous undocumented immigrant in America today, is a former San Francisco State student and San Francisco Chronicle staff writer who made national headlines by revealing in a 2011 New York Times Magazine essay that he is an undocumented immigrant.

“Documented”, directed by Vargas himself, centers around his personal experience as he prepared to reveal his undocumented status in the New York Times magazine essay.  The film shows Vargas traversing the country as he speaks at college campuses and visits conservative towns where undocumented immigrants are apparently not welcome.

Throughout the movie, Vargas reminds people that “there is no line” for him to join to acquire citizenship. When he engages some of Mitt Romney’s supporters at a 2011 campaign stop, Vargas says “But sir, but sir, there’s no line. … I was brought here when I was 12. I didn’t know I didn’t have papers since I was 16; my grandparents, who were American citizens, didn’t tell me. So I been here — I been paying taxes since I was 18, I just want to be able to get legal, to get in the back of the line somewhere.”

According to critics, Vargas elegantly positions immigration as the most controversial –  and least understood – political issue in the nation. I agree.  I liken it to the new third rail of politics.

I have not seen this movie yet.  But I will.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Will the House of Representatives Do What’s Right for America?

imm_1So… the U.S. Senate passed a marked-up and amended version of the Gang of Eight’s “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” and now we’re on to the House of Representatives.  What happens there is anybody’s guess.  What we do know for sure is that Speaker of the House John Boehner has no intention of taking action on the Senate’s bill.  “I’ve made it clear, and I’ll make it clear again: the House is not going to take up the Senate bill. The House is going to do its own job in developing an immigration bill,” Speaker Boehner said at a press conference last Monday afternoon.

So what does that mean for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”)?  I have no idea.  How sad that I just wrote that.  House Republicans seem so out of touch with what the American people want, and what’s good for America.

There have been countless reports in recent weeks referencing a number of studies which tout how great CIR would be for the U.S. economy.  Take for example the combined report of the President’s National Economic Council, Domestic Policy Council, Office of Management and Budget, and the Council of Economic Advisers, entitled “The Economic Benefits of Fixing Our Broken Immigration System”.  This report details the range of benefits to the U.S. economy that would be realized from passage of CIR.  More importantly, it also discusses the high cost of inaction.

There was also a study published by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (“ITEP”) that concluded that undocumented immigrants who live and work in the United States pay billions of dollars in taxes every year to state and local governments.  If they earned a legal status, they would apparently pay even more. According to ITEP, “undocumented immigrants paid an estimated total of $10.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2010.”  Moreover, “allowing undocumented immigrants to work in the United States legally would increase their state and local tax contributions by an estimated $2 billion a year.” If CIR were to occur, the increase state and local taxes in New York is estimated to be $224,126,000!

I remember working in Washington, D.C. in the late 1980’s.  Fresh out of college and going to grad school, I started interning on Capitol Hill for Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.  He then hired me and I worked for him for ten years.  In those days, it seemed like most of the legislation I saw get passed was largely bipartisan and things got done.  Today, it’s the complete opposite.  It seems like nothing gets done in Washington, and no one’s getting along across party lines.    With that as the backdrop, it was incredible that the Senate passed their bill.  As for the House, the House Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees combined have passed five piecemeal bills dealing with immigration reform.  None offer a road to legalization or citizenship for the undocumented population, and none increase the number of visas for legal immigration or clear the backlogs that currently exist.

It remains to be seen what the House will do in developing their owner “immigration bill”, as Speaker Boehner suggests it will.  I suppose it should be somewhat encouraging that Speaker Boehner told House Republicans last week to pass immigration reform legislation, stating that House Republicans will be “in a much weaker position” if they failed to act.  He’s right.

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