Will Senate Reform Bill Pass in House?

Perspectives on Immigration Reform

From the September 2013 PNL #827

by Barrie Gewanter and Jose Perez

In June, the US Senate passed S.744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” a bill intended to be a comprehensive approach for immigration reform. The next step is now in the House, whose leaders have rejected a comprehensive approach in favor of piecemeal reform bills. While the fate of immigration reform will rest in the hands of a joint congressional conference committee, it is useful to examine the bill the Senate has already passed.

There are a number of positive things included within the Senate bill. First, it provides a pathway to citizenship by allowing persons who arrived in the US prior to Dec. 31, 2011 to step forward and obtain a “registered provisional immigrant” (RPI) status. Individuals who qualify for and receive RPI status could work legally, travel to another country, and return to the US. They would have to register, pay a $500 fine, and go through a background check. The Senate bill also allows those deported before 2012 to return if they were deported for non-criminal reasons and have a spouse or child who is a US citizen or green card holder. 

After ten years as an RPI, individuals could apply for a green card (permanent resident status) by paying another $1,000 in fines and demonstrating that they meet work and English language requirements. In another three years they could apply for citizenship. There is also an expedited five-year process for agricultural workers and persons brought into the US as youth (called “Dreamers”) to apply for green cards. 

The Senate bill also increases visas for workers in particular economic sectors. Available visas for workers in scientific, medical and engineering (STEM) fields would initially be increased by 45,000 a year. More visas would be made available to immigrants who had earned advanced degrees in STEM fields from an American university. 

Meanwhile, other aspects of the bill, such as changes in family and employment-based immigration categories, would go into effect gradually, giving the Department of Homeland Security the opportunity to reduce extensive backlogs that have built up. One of the key aspects of the bill, backed by both labor and business, is a new “W” worker program that could expand over time based on workforce needs. Although W visas are for a limited duration, workers with W status may eventually be eligible to apply for lawful permanent residence, making it the first time that such less-skilled immigrant workers would be allowed to transition to permanent resident status without an employer’s sponsorship.

S.744 also addresses long-overdue shortcomings of the immigration removal, detention, and court processes, including authorizing access to counsel for certain vulnerable populations, giving immigration judges more opportunity to make case-by-case determinations on removal decisions, and streamlining the asylum program. (However, it also increases the penalties for certain criminal activities, making it more difficult or impossible to become a legal resident due to drunk-driving convictions, gang activity, domestic violence, passport fraud, and identity theft.)

One little known border provision of the Senate bill could bring some improvement to communities along New York’s northern border by reducing the jurisdiction of immigration law enforcement authorities (CBP and ICE) along the northern border. Federal law currently includes an exception to the 4th amendment prohibition against unreasonable stops, searches and seizures within 100 air miles of the US border. CBP/ICE agents can, in most cases, stop, question and search you at will within that area. However, S.744 reduces that jurisdiction to 25 air-miles inland from the northern border.

However, despite these many positive aspects to the law, some draconian policies are also contained within it, many within the Corker-Hoeven Amendment. This amendment, at the price tag of $40 billion, mandates virtually a complete militarization of the United States/Mexico border: 20,000 more border patrol agents, mobile surveillance devices, additional fencing, electronic exit systems, and additional border patrol stations and checkpoints. This despite the fact that former CBP Commissioner David Aguilar publicly stated in 2012 that our southern border was the most secure it has been in thirty years. 

There is still a difficult struggle to be pursued in the House, and a storm of high politics to weather before any final legislation is considered in a conference committee. So we will keep on educating and lobbying, and asking you to speak out with us. You, as voters, should place consistent pressure on members of Congress and urge them to support a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship. Our elected officials need to hear from us and experience firsthand, through phone call, letters and drop-in visits to their offices, the overwhelming public support for solving our nation’s broken immigration system. Si Se Puede. Yes We Can still enact real immigration reform.

Barrie works with the local chapter of the NYCLU. Jose is an immigration attorney.