The 110th Congress and Immigration Reform
from Campaign 2008

The 110th Congress and Immigration Reform

Backgrounder: The new Congress shares President Bush’s reform approach but new legislation is by no means assured.

February 13, 2007 10:14 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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The country’s immigration system, assailed by all sides as inadequate, generated intense congressional debate in 2006. However, widely divergent approaches by the House of Representatives and the Senate doomed efforts at comprehensive reform. Democrats, now in leadership positions in the 110th Congress, say they will attempt to revive efforts at comprehensive immigration reform with measures that encompass temporary work provisions, a path to citizenship for illegal aliens in the country, as well as bolstered security at the border. President Bush and a number of Senate Republicans share common ground with Democrats on many key aspects of immigration reform, including efforts to legalize many of the estimated twelve million illegal immigrants in the country. Congressional Republicans opposed to such moves, though diminished in numbers since the 2006 election, have vowed to fight any attempt at what they term an amnesty for workers who break the law.

What action did Congress take on immigration in 2006?

The House and Senate produced far different proposals on immigration in 2006. The Senate approved a bipartisan measure in May 2006 establishing a guest-worker program and an eventual path to citizenship for many of the country’s estimated twelve million illegal immigrants. That measure also included provisions for tightening the border and cracking down on unlawful employment of illegal aliens. But House Republicans declined to negotiate a compromise and focused on an enforcement-heavy measure to stop illegal immigration. In the end, Senate Republican leaders agreed on a bill stressing border security, including authorization of a seven hundred-mile fence to be constructed in 2007. President Bush signed the Secure Fence Act into law in October 2006, calling it an "important step toward immigration reform." But Bush signaled there was much more to do, including finding a way to deal with the large illegal immigrant population. The White House said: "There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation."

What proposals are before the 110th Congress?

President Bush included immigration reform as one of four domestic priority issues in his 2007 State of the Union message. His proposal calls for increasing border security efforts, creating a temporary worker program, and bringing illegal immigrants "out of the shadows" by allowing a path to citizenship for many of them, after certain conditions are met and penalties are levied.

Bush’s proposal urges flexibility in the temporary worker program so that it can be expanded or tightened depending on the state of the U.S. economy. Democratic leaders and some Republican backers of comprehensive reform are expected to seek a revival of last year’s Senate measure, which mirrors a number of President Bush’s requests. The chairwoman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), says she wants to build upon efforts to provide legislation that allows most illegal immigrants to remain in the country while seeking citizenship. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), the incoming chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Congress must pass a comprehensive bill on immigration and border security in the 110th session.

Leading Democrats, and some Republicans, have been critical of the planned seven hundred-mile border fence approved in the last Congress. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, says he will revisit the issue of the usefulness and viability of the fence in this session.

What are the foreign policy implications of Congress’ actions?

Mexico, origin of most illegal immigrants, is the country with the most at stake in the event of any sweeping new U.S. immigration law. But many other countries, especially in the developing world, will be watching the debate closely. Here are some of the key issues:

  • Tighter border security. While there are now doubts about the feasibility of erecting a seven hundred-mile fence on the Mexican border, all major immigration proposals involve calls for substantially bolstering border security, including through added manpower and greater technological surveillance. New U.S. policies in which detained illegal immigrants are held until they are sent home have already resulted in a surge of detainees, most of them Mexicans. The Washington Post says the growing backlog -- nearly twenty-seven thousand are now held in makeshift centers, could mean some remaining incarcerated for years.
  • New visa requirements. U.S. technology companies and foreign nationals are hoping a comprehensive immigration reform bill includes a major expansion in work visas, especially H-1B workers desired by the tech industry. The number is currently capped at sixty-five thousand per year and TechNet, a lobbying group for technology companies, is pressing for nearly double that. Such a move is of great interest to India and China, where a majority of H-1B workers originated during the tech boom and higher visa numbers of the 1990s. Overall, the government issues seventy-two different types of nonimmigrant visas, handing out 5.4 million in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service.
  • Tighter asylum and refugee policies. Congress in 1996 passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act to expedite the removal of aliens coming to the United States without proper paperwork. The measure was meant to protect legitimate asylum seekers but the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported in early February 2007 that many bona fide asylum seekers receive poor treatment and are sometimes sent back to repressive states. The government permits up to seventy thousand refugee admissions per year.

What obstacles do the Democrats face?

Because of ongoing public concerns about illegal immigrants, Democratic lawmakers will be sensitive to charges they are soft on security, says CFR Senior Fellow Edward Alden in a new podcast.

"The difficulty for the Democrats is that they don’t want to be portrayed in any way as soft on security, as somehow looking the other way. I think if the Republican minority goes after this aggressively and tries to paints Democrats as the party of amnesty that’s where you run into problems," says Alden.

"The difficulty for the Democrats is that they don’t want to be portrayed in any way as soft on security, as somehow looking the other way. I think if the Republican minority goes after this aggressively and tries to paints Democrats as the party of amnesty that’s where you run into problems," he says. But opponents of comprehensive reform proposals point to 1986 legislation that provided amnesty for illegal immigrants, yet failed to stem the massive flow of undocumented workers into the country. Experts say Democratic efforts at reforms will also be complicated by organized labor pressure groups that oppose some of the proposed guest worker measures.

Are there other new proposals for immigration reform?

A bipartisan task force chaired by Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, and Spencer Abraham, a former Bush administration energy secretary, released a set of proposals (PDF) in January 2007 calling for an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

It calls for simplifying the overburdened U.S. system and setting annual legal immigration levels at around 1.5 million, which it says is about three hundred thousand less than the annual number of both legal and illegal immigrants coming into the country today. It calls for the creation of a White House coordinator for immigration policy, as well as a body known as the "Standing Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets" to make recommendations to Congress biannually to adjust immigration levels. Hamilton told a recent CFR meeting such a realignment was essential. "Immigration is spread all over this government one way or the other," Hamilton said. "A lot of people have their finger in the pie. You don’t get integration. You don’t get coordination."

Did the 2006 midterm elections indicate the public mood on immigration?

The elections delivered a mixed message on immigration. Advocates of a softer approach, including guest worker programs, said results in a number of areas were a repudiation of the enforcement-only approach advocated by lawmakers like Republican Congressmen J.D. Hayworth and Randy Graf of Arizona, who were defeated. But others challenge this, saying the move on state and local levels to toughen requirements for residency and work permits is an indication of growing public displeasure with immigration. Arizona is illustrative. A state with a large Hispanic population—constituting 17 percent of voters—Arizona’s elections saw the defeat of Hayworth and Graf. But at the same time 48 percent of the state’s Hispanic voters supported a referendum making English the state’s official language. Overall, exit polls in 2006 showed Democrats gaining 11 percentage points (PDF) from Hispanic voters compared to the 2004 elections, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But Pew said it was difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about changes in the Hispanic vote. "I don’t think there’s enough evidence to point one way or another," says Michael Sandler, who covers immigration issues for Congressional Quarterly. "I think there were mixed signals on immigration."

What is the country’s legal immigration rate?

The country grants permanent residence to hundreds of thousands of noncitizens per year, some of them already living in the country on temporary visas. The United States also issues tens of thousands of visas each year for low-skilled and skilled labor. The Congressional Budget Office says in 2004, the United States gave permanent admission to 946,000 noncitizens (PDF). The criteria for legal immigrants revolves around three main areas—family ties, employment preferences, and humanitarian considerations such as refugee and asylum seekers. There is also a visa lottery for some applicants.

"Immigration is spread all over this government one way or the other," Hamilton said. "A lot of people have their finger in the pie. You don’t get integration. You don’t get coordination."

The government issues two types of visas for low-skilled workers—H-2A visas for farm workers and H-2B workers for other kinds of workers. The Congressional Research Service says the number of H-2A visas has averaged about thirty thousand annually (PDF) since 2000, and growers have complained those levels are too low. The current cap on H-2B visas is 66,000 per year. For high-skilled workers, such as scientific, education, health, and engineering workers, the government issues up to 65,000 H1-B visas per year.

While the foreign workers issue is debated, another type of immigrant is generating more interest—military recruits. With the announcement early in 2007 of plans to boost the size of the U.S. Army and Marines by 92,000 troops in the next five years, a number of analysts have said aspiring immigrants are a logical source. President Bush and Congress in recent years have streamlined the process (Dallas Morning News) for noncitizens in the military, easing citizenship for tens of thousands.

What are the economic consequences of immigration reform?

Some economists say the U.S. economy requires a steady flow of immigrants for labor-intensive jobs such as agriculture and meat packing, as well as high-tech industries. Rep. Mel Martinez (R-FL) said on January 16, 2007 if Congress fails to pass an immigration bill, "agriculture is going to have a real serious manpower shortage." The Manhattan Institute’s Tamar Jacoby says the net impact of immigrants on the economy is decidedly positive. But in a Online Debate last year, Steven Camarota from the Center for Immigration Studies disputed that, citing economic models showing that all natives lose from immigration.

A recent article in the Harvard International Review said "Three generations of basic research in the field of immigration suggest that there are sharp limits to the economic arguments that can be deployed to guide immigration policy." But the piece also cited indirect benefits of immigrant labor, such as allowing citizens the opportunity to pursue fortunes where they are more productive. On the other hand, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), one of the strongest voices in Congress for an enforcement-only approach, believes technological innovation and mechanization substitute for a number of the menial agriculture jobs handled by immigrants. He also sees the huge influx of Hispanic immigrants posing a threat to U.S. national identity.

CFR ’s Alden believes the White House and Democratic leaders are trying to take a practical approach to allowing more migrant workers in the country. "If you don’t find those legal channels [for regulating immigration], no amount of security is going to stop the flow of illegal immigrants," Alden says.

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