Senators Menendez & Leahy Introduce Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill

As the 111th Congress draws to a close, with Democrats hoping to keep their expected losses to a manageable level, some members are trying to make a last stand for the causes they hold dear, before the new – likely far more conservative – 112th Congress takes office in January. In this case, the cause is comprehensive immigration reform – “CIR” – and the stubborn holdouts are Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who introduced a new CIR bill late last week, with barely a month left before November’s mid-term elections.

According to Senator Menendez, the new bill would address several key immigration concerns, including: “strengthening border security, enhancing worksite enforcement of immigration laws, and requiring the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants present in the United States to register with the government, pay their taxes, learn English, pay a fine, pass a background check, and wait in line for permanent residence.” (See Menendez Introduces Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill, press release from Office of Sen. Menendez, 01.Oct.2010.) Senator Menendez characterized the new CIR bill as “a commonsense solution,” a pragmatic, centrist measure that should appeal to both sides of the aisle.

According to Senator Menendez, the proposed legislation would first clamp down on border security, greatly increasing the resources available to the Border Patrol and making a path to citizenship available to currently-undocumented immigrants only when certain border-security conditions are met; he also pledged heightened enforcement against passport and document fraud, improvements to the immigration detention system, and a crackdown on companies that hire illegal immigrants. All of these measures are designed to “sweeten the pot,” in the hopes of attracting support from conservative GOP members, and from Democrats in need of political cover.

To assuage the concerns of potential supporters who are concerned about American jobs, the Menendez bill would “significantly expand labor protections” in the H1B, L-1, and related programs, and would allow the USCIS to create a new H2C program – a nonimmigrant work visa that would offer portability and a path to citizenship. (See the above cited press release). Clearly, the sponsors believe that, with robust provisions for border security and job protection, skeptics might be persuaded to back their bill; true, they would be backing a path to citizenship, unpopular in conservative circles, but it would be an arduous path, strewn with penalties and obstacles, and perhaps sufficiently punishing to mollify their constituents.

This “get tough” approach still might not be enough to overcome GOP objections to three other provisions of the bill: the DREAM Act, AGJOBS, and particularly the UAFA – the Uniting American Families Act, an anti-discrimination measure that would allow permanent partners of U.S. citizens and green card holders to seek lawful permanent residency in the United States in the same way that spouses can. The latter provision may be a deal-breaker for GOP members of Congress who otherwise might support the bill.

The real question is whether any of this makes a difference, with time running out and a surfeit of legislation still to be considered during the lame duck session that’s planned for after the election. According to a recent article in The Hill, Democratic members are hoping to consider up to 20 pieces of legislation during this session, on issues ranging from tax cuts to national security, Medicare reimbursements to extended unemployment benefits. (See Democrats to Stuff 20 Bills into Post-Election Lame-Duck Session, by Alexander Bolton, The Hill, 28.Sep.2010.) It’s anyone’s guess as to where CIR would fit into this agenda, if at all. Democratic lawmakers probably hope to get credit for at least making the attempt.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.