Senate Passes Immigration Reform Bill

 

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Washington, DC — The Senate approved a sweeping immigration overhaul today in a strong bipartisan vote after an afternoon of emotional speeches as senators told personal stories of family journeys to the United States while visitors filled the galleries around the chamber.

The 70-vote tally that the bill’s drafters had hoped would spark momentum in the House slipped as Republicans peeled away. The final vote was 68-32, with 14 Republicans joining all of the Democrats.

Still, the outcome was significant in a divided Congress that rarely finds bipartisan agreement. But the landmark legislation has dim hope in the GOP-controlled House.

Despite drawing significant support from Republican senators with the addition of $46 billion in border security, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has no immediate plans to consider the bill. His GOP majority opposes the bill’s path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the country without legal status, and House Republicans are drafting their own bills.

“Well before they ever became citizens, in their hearts they had already become Americans,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a drafter of the bill, said of his own parents who came from Cuba. “This is not just my story. This is our story. … For over 200 years now they have come in search of liberty and freedom for sure. But often just in search of a job to feed their kids and a chance at a better life.”

Lines snaked around the halls leading to the Senate gallery entrances. Many of those who traveled to the Capitol to watch the vote were young immigrants who came to the United States as children. They call themselves Dreamers, after a provision in the bill that would give them a route to citizenship if they serve in the military or attend college. Dozens of them wore matching turquoise T-shirts reading “11 million Dreams.” Others were families of immigrants and advocates.

“We all want to stay here,” Adriana Teran, 29, who cleans houses in Charlotte, N.C., and was waiting in line with her husband and toddler for the chance to watch the proceedings. She came to the U.S. from Mexico and does not have legal status, though her 2-year-old, Juliet, is a U.S. citizen. She said her husband faces a deportation order. “It’s super important to see this vote.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) asked his colleagues to sit at their assigned seats for the roll call, which is rarely done as senators usually zip in and out for votes.

“It’s historic in nature, we should be here to vote,” Reid said.

The immigration overhaul has deeply divided the Republican Party, which now faces a difficult choice over how to proceed. Some do not expect the House to finish its work until the end of the year. Top Republicans see the legislation as an important part of the party’s re-branding effort, as it reaches out to Latino and other minority voters. But for many Senate Republicans, and those in the House, offering citizenship to those without legal status is a non-starter.

Even the addition of the unprecedented “border surge” of drones, troops and fencing along the boundary with Mexico did not convince most Senate Republicans that illegal immigration would diminish. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, and other top Republican senators voted no.

“It’s with a great deal of regret, for me at least, that the final bill didn’t turn out to be something I can support,” McConnell said. “If you can’t be reasonably certain that the border is secure as a condition of legalization, there’s just no way to be sure that millions more won’t follow the illegal immigrants who are already here.”

The legislation was the product of a hard-fought agreements reached among powerful players in Washington, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and advocates for immigrants.

Key Provisions

Under the legislation, immigrants would be able to gain lawful permanent resident status with green cards in 10 years, once the border has been bolstered with 24-hour drones, 20,000 new Border Patrol officers and 700 miles of fence, among other measures. They must also have paid fines and fees, know English and be in good standing after undergoing background checks.

Because 40% of the immigrants in the country illegally did not cross borders but stayed on expired visas, a new visa exit system would be required at all major airports.

The overhaul would substantially reform the nation’s long-standing preference for family members to join immigrants living here. Under the new system, more preference is given to workers.

A new guest-worker program for low-skilled maids, gardeners and others would be launched, and more high-skilled visas would be available. To stem illegal immigration, all employers will need to verify the legal status of new hires.

House Divided

Meanwhile, a bipartisan House group is working on a comprehensive immigration bill, its members hit a roadblock earlier this month when Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) dropped out. The House is more likely to pursue a piecemeal approach, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). Some measures, including one to make it a crime to be in the country without status, have already passed the Judiciary Committee.

Goodlatte issued a statement after the vote Thursday, saying he congratulated the Senate but has “many concerns about its bill,” giving no indication his committee would consider the gang of eight plan.

“While the Senate has every right to pass solutions it deems appropriate, the House does as well,” he said. “That’s the American legislative process.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reiterated on Thursday that he intends for the House to pursue its own immigration reform approach, rather than taking up the Senate bill.

“The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” Boehner told reporters at a press conference. “For any legislation, including a conference report, to pass the House, it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members,” he added later, referring to Republicans.

House Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) told reporters at a National Review event earlier in the day that “it is a pipe dream to think that bill is going to the floor and is going to be voted on.”

Some House Republicans have said they don’t want the lower chamber to take up immigration reform at all, even piecemeal, and threatened a revolt if Boehner holds a vote on the Senate bill. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said on the “Laura Ingraham Show” on Thursday that he is in the minority for not wanting to pass any immigration legislation that would allow for a conference committee to combine the House and Senate bills in “nefarious ways.”

“I’m one of those who believes that this is fraught with peril,” Brooks said. “If we were to pass a bill that’s a good bill on immigration, on enforcing and securing our borders, on whatever topic related to immigration we may want to pass a bill on, it can become a vehicle.”

Next Stop

Should the bill clear both chambers of Congress, President Barack Obama will be asked to sign a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will provide new opportunities for unlawful residents to stay in America legally, while at the same time pumping millions of dollars into the United States’ border with Mexico in an attempt to limit the influx of undocumented people. If the bill passed today by the Senate is signed into law by Pres. Obama, millions of presently undocumented immigrants would be granted lawful status to stay in the United States.

Sources: LA Times, Huffington Post

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Kristine Tungol Cabagnot welcomes your questions and comments at kristine@tungollaw.com.

DOMA Decision’s Potential Effect on Immigration

Source: Foreign Policy

Wasington, DC–With a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection guarantee. The ruling means that married same-sex couples will now be entitled to the same federal benefits as opposite-sex couples.

One of the main beneficiaries of the decision will be the estimated 36,000 binational same-sex couples living in the United States as well as countless more forced to live outside the country because, under DOMA, gay Americans could not sponsor their husbands or wives for citizenship, even if they had been married in one of the 12 states — plus the District of Columbia — where same-sex marriage is legal.

On a political level, the decision could also smooth the way for the immigration reform bill making its way through Congress. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in particular, has been pushing for the inclusion of specific language in the bill giving equal protection to immigrants in same-sex marriages. “I can’t look at one Vermont couple and say, ‘O.K., we can take care of you,’ but another couple, ‘We have to discriminate against you,” he recently told the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza.

But key Republican supporters of the bill, including Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, threatened to walk away from the legislation if the gay marriage language was added. And Democratic same-sex marriage supporters like Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin ended up voting against Leahy’s amendment in order to keep their fragile coalition together, angering some gay rights groups. The Supreme Court’s decision will take the heat off a little bit, enabling the Obama administration to extend immigration benefits to same-sex couples without action from Congress.

This isn’t a perfect fix. As ABC’s Abby Phillip writes, “relying solely on the court to strike down DOMA could mean that a future administration could reverse Obama’s actions when it comes to immigration law.” However, give the larger political and legal trends in the country, it’s hard to imagine a future administration taking that step or the court upholding its right to.

Source: blog.foreignpolicy.com

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Kristine Tungol Cabagnot is an associate at Tungol Law. You may reach her at kristine@tungollaw.com.

Immigration Debate Goes to Senate Floor

Pres. Obama speaks in support of the immigration bill. (Olivier Douliery, McClatchy-Tribune)

WASHINGTON — With an overwhelming vote, the Senate on Tuesday launched debate on an ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, as Republicans, most of whom have not yet embraced the effort, declined to stand in the way of bringing it to the floor.

But continuing doubts within the GOP about some of the bill’s central elements, particularly on border security, could doom the effort. Republicans in the Senate and House want tighter control of the border with Mexico before the estimated 11 million people who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas would be allowed to gain permanent legal status.

Democrats, who control the narrowly divided Senate, appear to be willing to accept some measures to toughen border security, but not changes that a future president or Congress could use to block the bill’s 13-year route to citizenship. They worry that pursuit of nearly complete control of the southern border, which some Republicans say is the price of their vote, is an impossible goal that would leave immigrants in legal limbo for the next decade and beyond.

Republicans remain deeply divided about whether to compromise on that point. In Tuesday’s lopsided 82-15 vote, only Republicans opposed bringing up the bill.

Trying to bridge the divide in the Republican Party is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, perhaps the most crucial member of the bipartisan group that wrote the bill. He has been working on his own border security measure to offer as an amendment.

“I understand many in the Democratic Party and the advocate community for immigrants are asking for certainty in the green card process, but I also think we need to have certainty on the border process,” Rubio said Tuesday in the Senate halls. “And so we need to find both.”

To become law, the bill would also have to get through the Republican-controlled House. SpeakerJohn A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday that passing an immigration bill into law would be “at the top” of his chamber’s accomplishments this year. He also hinted that he might be willing to let a bill come to the floor even if most of his GOP caucus does not support it. “My job is — as speaker — is to ensure that all members on both sides have a fair shot at their ideas,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

President Obama has touted the overhaul as his top second-term priority. Surrounded by law enforcement, labor and business advocates of immigration reform at the White House on Tuesday, he called on Congress to pass the “common-sense, bipartisan bill that is the best chance we’ve had in years to fix our broken immigration system.”

As the bill is written, immigrants would be allowed to transition to provisional legal status within six months after it becomes law if the Department of Homeland Security has come up with a plan for border security. After 10 years, if the plan is “operational,” most immigrants in good standing would be able to get green cards. After 13 years they could become citizens.

The legislation provides up to $6.5 billion for more drones, border agents and double-layer fencing across the border with Mexico to try to stop 90% of illegal crossings. Some sectors are well on their way to that goal, while others are less secure. But as the bill is currently written, even if this goal is not achieved, immigrants in the U.S. might still be allowed to become citizens.

“You got to give people a sense of certainty that they go through all these sacrifices, do all this, that there’s at the end of the horizon, the opportunity — not the guarantee, but the opportunity — to be part of this American family,” Obama said.

Many Republicans say that they want to support an immigration measure, but need a guarantee that there will not be a new wave of illegal immigration if they offer a path to citizenship to those who are already in the U.S.

Along with increased border security and the path to citizenship, the bill attempts to prevent illegal crossings by creating guest-worker programs for low- and high-skilled labor and by requiring all businesses to verify the legal status of new employees.

Overcoming the differences among Republicans will be key if the legislation clears the Senate and moves to the House, where the conservative majority prefers an approach that focuses more on law enforcement.

“If we don’t guarantee results on border security, if we don’t guarantee to the American people that we actually are going to get serious about stopping the flow of people illegally crossing our northwestern or southwestern border, that is the real poison pill,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, who has proposed tougher border provisions.

As the Senate began voting Tuesday, the anticipation of an unusually strong bipartisan tally appeared to be gratifying to senators who helped craft the bill. Rubio emerged from the Republican cloakroom with a smile. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) flashed a thumbs-up sign with his vote. When newly appointed Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa (R-N.J.) voted yes, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a key member of the group, crossed the floor to shake his hand.

Still, GOP opposition is likely to swell in the weeks ahead, as those who voted to begin the debate want other changes that Democrats are not eager to make. Among those are one to require immigrants to pay back taxes on under-the-table jobs and another to bar holders of green cards from receiving certain tax credits, including those available to low-income Americans under the new healthcare law.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, offered a gloomy prediction for consensus: “We may not succeed.”

Other Republican ideas, though, are more likely to gain traction. These include requiring businesses to more quickly begin verifying the legal status of all new hires and bolstering the exit system at land ports of entry to improve tracking of those who overstay their visas. Studies show that 40% of the immigrants who are here without legal status did not cross illegally but remained after their visas expired.

Rubio has an amendment that would require English “proficiency,” rather than just “knowledge,” before immigrants can gain green cards.

Outside pressure on legislators, meanwhile, continues to build. The powerful Service Employees International Union launched new television ads in support of the bill Tuesday, while the conservative Heritage Foundation urged senators to defeat it, arguing that immigrants who gain legal status would be a drain on the government.

The Senate halls are increasingly filled with immigrants making the case to senators. Among them are many young adults without legal status who were brought to the U.S. as children. They call themselves Dreamers, after the Dream Act, a once-defeated measure now included as a provision in the bill that would give an expedited path to citizenship to those who join the military or attend college.

Source: LA Times

-Kristine Tungol Cabagnot welcomes your comments and questions at kristine@tungollaw.com.

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