You might hear that “immigration reform is dead” in the 112th Congress. But in reality, since January 2011, hardly a week has gone by without a panel discussion, conference, congressional hearing or expert analysis on immigration in Washington, D.C.
There are many immigration initiatives pending, and some serious bipartisan interest in getting something done before the next election. A trend for what immigration reform might look like in the 112th Congress is beginning to emerge. The focus is different than during the last decade, as are the politics and leadership.
The conversation on immigration reform in 2011 seems to be focusing on two elements. The first is on granting more green cards to educated and skilled immigrants. The second is on increasing internal as well as border enforcement. The strong advocacy for legalization of “undocumented” immigrants by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and by Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill. – no longer on the House immigration subcommittee – is noticeably dimmer.
President Obama advocated for educated immigrants in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 25. He spoke about the need for an initiative known as the STAPLE Act that would grant automatic green cards to foreign students who earned advanced degrees in the STEM fields. Similarly, he sup-ported passage of the DREAM Act that would also give an eventual green card to students who, as advocates tell it, had been brought into the country illegally without their knowledge by their parents and had graduated from high school and college. “What a waste of our educational resources and of the talent of educated young people by keeping them from staying and working here,” Obama often says.
The STAPLE Act has been pushed in Congress by Bill Gates for years; an initial bill may be proposed in this coming session. The “DREAM” concept has had a long history of bipartisan support in both chambers and had been regarded by immigration strategists as a major driver of comprehensive immigration reform. But in the last days of the 111th Congress, Democratic leaders decided to allow the bill to go to the chambers as a stand-alone proposal. Many Republican senators who had previously voted for the DREAM Act (such as Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas and some Democrats) voted against it, how-ever, on the grounds that it did not reflect what its advocates claimed.
It is possible that a rewritten DREAM Act could pass in the 112th Congress. It seems the president sincerely wants it. But the likelihood of it driving a comprehensive immigration bill that includes a broad amnesty for illegal immigrants is not likely. What is more possible is that a Democratically driven DREAM Act might be used as a tradeoff for other immigration initiatives such as the STAPLE Act, a broader temporary agricultural worker pro-gram, a reduction in family unification visas and even a limited birth-rights citizenship act that would exclude children born to birth tourists.
More likely is that any increase in any visa category could be accompanied by stronger enforcement initiatives. The Obama administration pretty much continued the push of the Bush administration to increase border enforcement and improve deportation retention facilities and processes. Now both state and federal initiatives are turning to internal immigration enforcement, to improving the functions of ICE (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau), America’s first-ever internal immigration enforcement agency.
Foremost among the internal enforcement initiatives are those that pro-pose improving and eventually making mandatory American employers’ use of the E-Verify system. It’s an electronic database that would confirm every new employee’s work permit and immigration status. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who continues as Sen. Kennedy’s replacement to head the Senate immigration subcommittee, is a strong advocate of E-Verify. His first immigration hearing last year was on that proposal. He often proclaims that “almost all Americans like immigrants but do not like illegal immigration” and that the way to stop the latter is to prevent employers from hiring immigrants without work permits.
Meanwhile the House immigration subcommittee – now called Immigration and Enforcement Policy – has changed to the Republican majority. Former chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., is now the ranking member; Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., is chairman; and Steven King, R-Iowa, the former ranking member, is co-chair. Although Gallegly headed the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, he is less of a zealot on some immigration issues than King, who early in the 112th Congress introduced H.R. 104, which would prohibit birthright citizenship to anyone whose parents were both illegally in the country. Their immigration hearings in March focused on the impact of illegal immigration on minority American workers and on the H1B visas. The strident advocacy-voice for the “undocumented” of Gutiérrez has now been replaced by the softer-toned voice of resident commissioner from Puerto Rico Pedro R. Pierluisi.
At the White House, immigration strategy is not clear. Many Hispanic leaders feel the president has not taken a strong enough leadership role. But Department of Homeland Security immigration advisor and former Kennedy legislative director Esther Olavarria maintains that the White House “wants and believes comprehensive immigration can pass in this Congress. We will not support piecemeal legislation, even the STAPLE Act,” she said in March at the Urban Institute. However, Cecilia Muñoz, former senior advocate of La Raza and Obama’s director of intergovernmental affairs, seems to have conceded otherwise. The White House agreed to the stand-alone DREAM Act in December, and the president indicates they may try again.
Whether one believes in a piecemeal or comprehensive strategy, immigration legislation is clearly alive and well in the 112th Congress. There is even some evidence of bipartisan support for some of it. Both parties are reaching out to the growing number of diverse Hispanic voters, the Republicans with some notable successes: the five new Hispanic congress-men and the new Hispanic senator in the 112th Congress are all Republican. Being Republican and supporting some stand-alone trade-off immigration proposals may be seen increasingly as a good political career move.