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As I write this piece, summer is slowly turning into fall, the leaves are just starting to change their colors, and Congress has come back to work from its summer recess. Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”) is only slightly closer to reality than it was since 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 of Representatives continues to take baby-steps toward a piecemeal approach at CIR. We’ll see what happens there.
So, instead of focusing on what’s going on in Washington, D.C. in terms of CIR, I thought it might be interesting to take a different approach for this month’s article. That is, what’s been going on at the state level on the immigration front?
The National Conference of State Legislatures (“NCSL”) recently reported that “[a]s of June 30, 2013, state legislatures had already exceeded the number of laws and resolutions enacted in all of 2012. In the first half of 2013, lawmakers in 43 states and the District of Columbia enacted 146 laws and 231 resolutions related to immigration, for a total of 377. This is an 83 percent increase from the 206 laws and resolutions enacted in the first half of 2012.”
The issues touched upon nationwide have been expansive: education, employment, health, human trafficking, ID’s and driver’s licenses, law enforcement and public benefits, to name just a few.
I started out this column noting that our immigration system is badly broken at the federal level. The fact that the states, therefore, have responded by passing their own patchwork of laws attempting to regulate immigration, typically considered to be within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government, makes the situation even worse.
The reason for this uptick in state-sponsored immigration legislation is reported to be two-fold. First, in 2012, states seemed to wait for the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. United States. On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court overturned three of four provisions in Arizona’s S.B.1070 regarding that states authority in immigration enforcement.
Second, just a couple of few weeks earlier than the Supreme Court’s decision, the Obama Administration issued a new policy on deferred action for childhood arrivals (commonly known as “DACA”). On June 15, 2012, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and who meet several key guidelines could request consideration of deferred action for a period of two (2) years, subject to renewal, and could also be eligible for work authorization. Deferred action is a discretionary determination by the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) to defer the removal action of an individual as an act of prosecutorial discretion. Deferred action does not, however, provide an individual with lawful status.
According to the NCSL, a number of state-enacted immigration laws have been quite positive. For example, Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon extended in-state tuition benefits to unauthorized immigrant students. As of this writing, 15 states now offer this benefit. Other states took up driver’s license eligibility, beginning with California in the fall of 2012, and Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Vermont in 2013.
What’s going on in New York thus far in 2013? As of June 30, 2013, our state legislature considered four pieces of immigration-related legislation, three of which were passed.
First, the controversial Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act (commonly known as the “New York SAFE Act”) amended gun licensing restrictions to include the consideration of citizenship or immigrant status (i.e., generally preventing the issuance or renewal of a license under the act to an alien not legally or lawfully in the United States).
Within the state budget, there were two immigration-related provisions. First, there was a provision which related to an electronic information sharing system that allows for the exchange of criminal history records for noncriminal justice purposes authorized by federal or state law, and defines noncriminal justice matters to include the use of criminal history records for purposes other than criminal justice matters, including immigration and naturalization matters. The state budget also included a provision which amended eligibility for unemployment benefits for illegal aliens; that is, illegal aliens or immigrants working without legal permission cannot obtain unemployment benefits.
By line item veto, Governor Cuomo vetoed a provision in the state budget which would have included funds for language classes for limited English proficient and immigrant students.
The NCSL also reported that the largest spike in immigration-related activity at the state level was in passage of non-legislative resolutions. That is, 31 states adopted 231 resolutions covering a myriad of issue areas. Twenty five sought action from Congress or the Obama Administration, including eight resolutions related to passing CIR. Others asked Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (which it did), among other important areas.
Once again, the fact that the states are passing their own immigration related laws and resolutions is proof positive that our immigration system is broken at the federal level, and CIR is desperately needed. The Senate has already spoken. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte recently was quoted as saying that congressional fights over Syria and the debt limit “should not deter us from getting to [immigration] as soon as possible.” He said his committee and others have already passed smaller immigration bills relating to border security, internal enforcement, guest workers, and high-tech visas, and there could be votes on these measures as soon as October. Notably, there’s still no path to citizenship (or even a lawful immigration status) in the House bills that have passed for the eleven to thirteen million undocumented immigrants in the United States. I guess we’ll have to continue to wait and see what happens.
On May 7, 2013 several senators proposed, in total, more than 300 amendments to the Gang of Eight’s bill for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”). That’s right, more than 300 amendments. If you’re interested in perusing them, they’re all available on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s website.
Some of the amendments are good (e.g., making sure that all families can be reunited with their loved ones including siblings of U.S. citizens, making sure that businesses have access to the workers they need, ensuring that both U.S. workers and foreign nationals are fairly paid and are fully protected, and restoring due process so that everyone who goes through our immigration system is treated fairly).
Some amendments are bad. For example, requiring largely ineffective and cost prohibitive measures as “triggers” before an undocumented alien could apply for legalization, barring aliens with minor convictions from being able to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (“RPI”) status, preventing RPI’s from being able to travel outside the United States to visit their families, and eliminating important legal protections such as access to legal counsel and the basic right of a detainee to have a custody hearing before detention.
According to at least one news outlet, thus far there has been a spirit of bipartisanship during the mark-up of the bill (e.g., an amendment by Republican senator Charles Grassley sought to require continuous surveillance of 100% of the U.S. States border and achieve 90% effectiveness of enforcement of the entire border was approved by a voice vote).
Of course, not everyone is embracing this bipartisan spirit. Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas, the freshman Senator who always seems to find a way to be in the news, filed an amendment to the bill last week that would ban anyone who has been in the U.S. without status from becoming a citizen at any point.
I’m not from Texas, but my sense is that it’s a fairly conservative state. I find it interesting, therefore, that The Houston Chronicle had some harsh words for its two Senators who both sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee. I quote: “Many of these amendment IEDs are being offered by such ardent opponents of the legislation as the Lone Star State’s Senate duo, tea-party true-believer Ted Cruz and his senior colleague John Cornyn, a tea-party target in 2014 if he doesn’t toe the line. Despite protestations to the contrary, Cruz, Cornyn and other hard-liners would be happy to hobble immigration reform. That’s why they have latched on to the border-security issue as a way to kill it.”
I think that most Democrats and Republicans would agree that realistic and cost effective border reform is a key goal for CIR to have any shot at passing. Let’s make sure, though, that it is both realistic and cost effective.
On April 16, 2013, the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” introduced the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” an 844 page piece of legislation which is the Senate’s starting point for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”). So, what’s actually in the “Gang of Eight’s” 844 page bill?
Here’s a primer.
1. Legalization. This is perhaps the most controversial provision of the bill. The bill provides that non-citizens who are in the United States unlawfully, and who entered the U.S. before December 31, 2011, may apply to become a Registered Provisional Immigrant (“RPI”). Those who are eligible would be required to pay a penalty along with any and all back taxes due and owing. They would also receive permission to work (and they would be permitted to travel abroad). They would also become eligible to apply for their Green Card after ten (10) years. Three (3) years after that, they can apply for naturalization (i.e., citizenship).
2. H-1B Nonimmigrants. The H-1B nonimmigrant visa / status is granted to a foreign national who will perform services in a specialty occupation. The bill will increase the available yearly quota to a minimum of 110,000 nonimmigrant visas, and a maximum of 180,000. The bill will also increase the U.S. advanced degree exemption to 25,000, but will limit the issuance of visas under this exemption to “STEM” graduates (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math graduates).
The bill also proposes to add a recruitment requirement for all H-1B labor condition applications (which are required to be certified by the U.S. Department of Labor as part of the H-1B process). With respect to the H-1B category, this is (for the most part) very new (and I suspect will not be very popular with employers who use the H-1B program).
On the positive side, the bill also proposes to provide employment authorization for spouses and, on a technical point, adds a 60-day grace period after an H-1B worker has been terminated from his or her job.
3. Employment-Based Green Cards. Employment-based immigration is organized in what is called a “preference” system which has annual quotas. The total number of employment-based “Green Cards” available in the U.S. government’s fiscal year is 140,000. The bill proposes to exempt the following categories from the annual quota: aliens of extraordinary ability, outstanding researchers and professors, multinational executives and managers, doctoral degree holders, physicians who have completed their foreign residency requirement, and with respect to all of them, their spouses and children. The bill also adds a new employment-based Green Card category for certain entrepreneurs.
4. Family-Based Green Cards. Family-based immigration is also organized in a “preference” system which also has annual quotas. The total number of family-based “Green Cards” available in the U.S. government’s fiscal year is 226,000. The bill proposes to merge the FB-2A preference category (related to spouses and children of Green Card holders) into the immediate relative classification (where there is no quota), allow for derivatives of immediate relatives, eliminate the FB-4 category (related to siblings of U.S. citizens), cap the age of eligibility of married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens at thirty one (31), and reinstate the V nonimmigrant visa (related to spouses and children of Green Card holders).
5. Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Workers: Temporary workers typically are in the United States on “nonimmigrant” visas (like the H-1B). The bill proposes to create a “W-1” nonimmigrant visa for lesser-skilled workers, a “W-2” nonimmigrant visa for foreign nationals coming to the U.S. temporarily to perform agricultural services or labor under a written contract, and a “W-3” nonimmigrant visa for “at-will” workers with an offer of full-time employment in an agricultural occupation. (The W-2 and W-3 visas would replace the current H-2A agricultural worker program.)
6. Political Asylum: Political asylum may be granted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) or an Immigration Judge to foreign nationals who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, and/or their membership in a particular social group or their political opinion. The bill proposes to eliminate the current one-year filing deadline for applying for political asylum. It also proposes to authorize asylum officers to grant political asylum during “credible fear interviews” (i.e., interviews of foreign nationals who affirmatively apply for political asylum upon entering the United States). These would both be welcomed changes.
7. E-Verify: E-Verify is an Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States. The bill proposes to require all employers to use the system after five (5) years.
8. Fraud: The bill proposes to make it a crime to knowingly defraud an immigrant or hold oneself out as an attorney or Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) accredited representative when one is not authorized to do so. This is another very welcome change. The bill also proposes to require the identification of individuals who assist aliens with the completion of forms.
There’s more… a LOT more, actually. These are the “big ticket” items, and at least some of them will create a lot of discussion within the halls of Congress over the coming weeks (and perhaps months). The bill is not perfect, but it is a very good start.