For the last two months, comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) has dominated the airwaves — from President Obama’s inauguration address and State of the Union, to hearings in the Senate and House of Representatives, to almost daily news articles in major national and ethnic newspapers — on the immediate need to overhaul our country’s immigration laws, for the benefit of our country and for the more than 11 million undocumented currently living here. So far, the Administration and leading senators have issued two independent proposals to fix our broken immigration system in a comprehensive and common-sense approach, and their quick action demonstrates a real commitment to getting reform done in 2013.
While the precise legislative provisions of a immigration reform bill are not yet certain, the key points outlined by President Obama and the bipartisan group of senators working on a bill are similar. Overall, the Senate plan outlined the following key points:
- Creating a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S. that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required;
- Reforming our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families;
- Creating an effective, and probable, mandatory employment-verification system that prevents identity theft, ends the hiring of future unauthorized workers, and includes stiff penalties for egregious offenses;
- Establishing an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers;
- Reducing backlogs in the family and employment visa categories;
- Providing permanent resident status to immigrants who have received a Ph.D. or Master’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM fields) from a U.S. university;
- Establishing a new agricultural worker program.
Where are we now? Leaders in the Senate have given themselves a deadline of March 1 to produce legislative language that embodies the principles they released. The Administration, which has privately drafted an immigration bill so that it can “be ready” if the Senate fails to continue to move forward, has made it clear that the President will take a back seat to lawmakers, but also wants to see real progress by March. Once a bill is introduced by the Senate, it will go through normal Senate procedure, including hearings and a markup in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Debate will follow, then a vote on the Senate floor. To overcome a potential filibuster – currently viewed as probable – the bill will need to receive at least 60 votes. Once passed by the full Senate, the bill would move to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Already, a couple of congressional hearings have been held and more are to come. On February 13, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on immigration reform, featuring DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and other witnesses. On February 5, the House Judiciary Committee kicked off its first immigration-focused hearing in the 113th Congress.
Meanwhile, the White House website has devoted a special section to President Obama’s 2013 comprehensive immigration reform proposal, with basic resources for the public and as a way to help advance the legislation.
It’s hard not to be extremely encouraged by the lightening-fast pace taken by Congress and the Administration to enact CIR. And, while the fight for a fair and balanced immigration system will continue over the next several months, the momentum for change is breathtaking.
We will keep you posted.
Senate Passes VAWA Reauthorization; House to Consider Bill
On February 12, the Senate passed by a vote of 78-22 the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a bill that strengthens protections for all victims of sexual and domestic violence, particularly Native Americans, immigrants, and LGBT survivors of violence. The bill passed with significant bipartisan support. All eyes now move to the House of Representatives, where the legislation will be considered. Despite bipartisan support in the Senate, VAWA stalled in the House last year.
Other Immigration Legislation of Interest
The House of Representatives recently introduced two bills that are likely to become part of CIR. They are the Immigration Innovation (I2) Act of 2013, which makes changes to the H-1B and student visas and increases access to employment-based green cards; and Reuniting Families Act, which promotes family unity in the immigration system and improvements to the family-based immigration preference system. Significantly, and among other things, the bill allows same-sex partners to apply for family-based immigration benefits.