Last year saw renewed efforts at a comprehensive immigration reform bill with the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan passage of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744), a bill that would allow a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and make significant changes to employment-based immigration laws. Not surprisingly, that legislation stalled, given the myriad legislative obstacles the bill needed to overcome before it could become law. Such hurdles included gaining approval from the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, where many members either oppose comprehensive immigration reform, preferring a piecemeal approach, or differ on the form it should take even if they are in favor of it. Any possibility of final passage of the bill was quashed when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that he would not even bring the Senate bill up for a vote in the House.
- In the 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama, albeit briefly, once again expressed his support for immigration reform legislation through bipartisan cooperation, stating that “members of both parties in the House want to” address immigration reform in 2014. Emphasizing the economic benefits of immigration reform without detailing any specific legislative plans, the President simply urged: “(s)o let’s get immigration reform done this year.”
- Two days later, House Republicans unveiled their “Standards for Immigration Reform,” a set of principles for an overhaul of the immigration system. While the standards reflect a commitment to “working in a bipartisan manner” to address the current issues in the immigration system, they make clear that the House will not pursue a comprehensive bill like S. 744 and that House Republicans have no intention to proceed to a conference with the Senate bill. Instead, the standards articulate a plan to resolve the problems in the immigration system through a “step-by-step, common-sense approach,” that starts with border security and robust enforcement measures. The principles guiding this effort include:
- priority given to border security and interior enforcement with a “zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future”;
- the need to implement a “fully functioning” entry-exit visa tracking system to identify and track visitors who overstay their visas as well as a “workable electronic employment verification system” instead of a “paper based system wrought with fraud”;
- reforms to the legal immigration system:
- visa and green card allocations in employment-based immigration that enable employers to retain highly-skilled foreign nationals educated in the United States and reflect their “desire for these exceptional individuals to help grow our economy.” Without the availability of sufficient visas, “we end up exporting this labor and ingenuity to other countries”;
- a temporary worker program that addresses the economic needs of the country and strengthens national security by providing “realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States,” with a particular emphasis on the agricultural industry;
- a legalization program for undocumented immigrants that allows them to “live legally and without fear in the U.S.” provided certain preconditions are met, namely admitting culpability; passing rigorous background checks; paying significant fines and back taxes; developing proficiency in English and American civics; and being able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits). This, however, does not include a “special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws” (with the exception of those who were brought to the country as children through no fault of their own who would be eligible for legal permanent residence and citizenship). The prerequisite to such legal status would be implementing “specific enforcement triggers” to ensure that U.S. immigration law will be enforced in the future.
- One week after House Republican leaders proposed the above statement of principles, prospects for immigration reform were again dampened when Boehner conceded that it is unlikely that immigration reform legislation will pass this year until President Obama rebuilds trust with Republicans. Boehner stated that there is “widespread doubt about whether the (Democratic) administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” and that “the reform we’re talking about will be implemented as it was intended,” given that the President “seemed to change health care law on a whim whenever he likes.” This makes it “difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”