The Senate’s first official step toward crafting comprehensive immigration reform legislation revealed bipartisan areas of agreement but also illustrated the divide in Congress between those focused on improving enforcement of current federal immigration laws and those who desire legislative reform to overhaul those laws.
The Senate Committee on the Judiciary held its first hearing on immigration reform Feb. 13, 2013. Many Republicans on the committee argued that the border must be secure before other aspects of an immigration overhaul, including changes to the employment visa system and a path to legalization for currently undocumented workers, can move forward.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., spoke out against this stand, saying, “To them I say that you have stalled immigration reform for too long. We have effectively done enforcement first and enforcement only. It is time to proceed to comprehensive action to finally bring families out of the shadows.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee ranking member, said that there is consensus that some kind of reform is required, but that he hopes to avoid the previous mistakes of immigration overhaul efforts, referring to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Grassley said he was wrong to vote in favor of that legislation, as many critics of the 1986 measure say it opened the floodgates for a sharp increase in illegal immigration.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was grilled at the hearing by a number of Republican senators, who challenged the notion that she and the Obama administration have done a satisfactory job securing borders and enforcing immigration laws.
Napolitano countered those criticisms by suggesting Republicans and others are looking for ways to block comprehensive reform.
“Too often the border security refrain simply serves as an excuse,” she said. “Our borders have in fact never been stronger.”
Napolitano cited several statistics to prove border security has improved over the past four years, including doubling the number of border patrol agents from approximately 10,000 in 2004 to more than 21,000 today and deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants.
She also argued that internal enforcement of immigration laws, including those enforced on employers is equally important because the demand for labor is driving illegal entries. She testified that since January 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has audited nearly 9,000 employers suspected of hiring undocumented workers, debarred 917 companies and individuals, and imposed more than $101 million in financial sanctions. That exceeds the total amount of audits and debarments during the entire previous administration.
Asked by Leahy whether immigration reform will be a magnet for further flow of undocumented workers, as it was in 1986, Napolitano said that “immigration enforcement now is light years away from what it was in 1986.”
Jessica M. Vaughan, the director of Policy Studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, described the current push for comprehensive immigration reform as “a recipe for failure on a scale even more massive than in 1986.” Vaughan told the committee that “This package of reforms would make major changes to our system, reward huge numbers of scofflaws and create new flows of immigration without regard to their effect on U.S. workers, in exchange for unfulfilled promises of enforcement.”
She said that the main reason illegal immigration has continued since the 1986 reform law “was because the government was quick to implement the amnesty program, but never followed through with the enforcement of employer sanctions.”
She described a “clumsy I-9 system” in which employers are required to ask new hires for documentation, but not expected or required to verify the information. “As a result, many workers simply began providing false documents, and a booming trade in false identification for employment purposes was born,” she said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., reiterated that the lessons of 1986 are fundamental. “The amnesty occurs immediately, and we’re promised an enforcement mechanism some day in the future. We went from 3 million illegal immigrants to 11 [million]. There is a lot of overconfidence about this bill,” he warned the committee. “I will expose this bill if it’s not right. It will not pass,” he said.
Worker Verification ‘Central’ to Reform
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that border security, and the problem of people illegally crossing the border, cannot be handled without combating the “magnet, which is jobs.” To that end, he said, an employment verification system is a critical part of any immigration plan.
Napolitano agreed with that assessment.
“I believe that national implementation of a worker verification system—E-Verify is the one we have—is central to immigration reform,” she said. “It will reinforce what we do at the border.”
She testified that the president’s vision for immigration reform includes a mandatory electronic employee verification system phased in over five years, with exemptions for certain small businesses, increased sanctions against employers that hire undocumented workers, new penalties for committing fraud and identity theft, and the creation of a new fraud‐resistant, tamper‐resistant, Social Security card.
She told the committee that employer enrollment in E-Verify has more than doubled since January 2009, with more than 429,000 participating companies representing more than 1.2 million hiring sites, and more than 21 million queries processed in fiscal year 2012.
Grassley introduced a bill in January 2013 which would make use of the E-Verify program mandatory for all employers, allow employers to use E-Verify before a person is hired and require employers to check the status of all current employees hired within three years.
The bill is expected to be considered for inclusion in the larger comprehensive package.
High-Skilled Reform Has Broad Consensus
Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL and CEO of investment firm Revolution, spoke about the advantages of high-skilled immigration and expressed that businesses would support a path to citizenship.
“High-skilled immigrants have always been job creators, not job takers,” Case said.
He argued that passing high-skilled immigration reform is critical to maintaining the country’s competitive standing globally. He said other countries are reforming their immigration laws to attract high-skilled workers because they “recognize entrepreneurship is the secret sauce that powered our economy.”
Case said that the argument to focus on better training and education for America’s youth instead of allowing more high-skilled immigrants to stay in the U.S. is a false choice. “We can and must do both: draw the best talent from across the globe, and develop more talent in science, math, technology and engineering here at home.”
In the past month, senators from both parties have introduced bills designed to retain skilled foreign workers and graduates with advanced degrees in technical fields from American universities in the U.S. Those measures are expected to be folded into a larger, comprehensive immigration bill.
Napolitano also signaled support for such proposals, arguing that foreign high-skilled workers have traditionally boosted the U.S. economy.
She told the committee that the president’s framework includes allowing foreign entrepreneurs who attract financing from U.S. investors or revenue from U.S. customers to start and grow their businesses in the United States, giving green cards to high-skilled graduates from qualified U.S. universities who have found employment in the U.S., eliminating annual country caps, adding visas to the system, and exempting certain categories from annual visa limitations.
‘This Is the Moment’
Graham stressed that the goal of this reform effort is to not repeat the failure of 1986. “The goal this time around is to fix a broken immigration system, so that 20 years from now, we won’t have 12 million illegal immigrants. Border security has to be the starting point, because if you come up with a bunch of other laws, and people can still just cross the street into the country, that goal won’t be accomplished,” he said.
Graham asked Napolitano if she had ever seen a better opportunity than now to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would prevent a post-1986 wave of illegal immigrants. “No, this is the moment,” she definitively answered.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him at @SHRMRoy.
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