Immigration Reform: Light at the End of the Tunnel?

The debate rages on: is any meaningful progress possible on immigration reform before the 2012 elections? Immigration reform advocates might be tempted to see a light at the end of the tunnel – a faint light, admittedly, but better than nothing. In recent months, President Obama has devoted a good deal more attention to immigration issues than in the first two years of his administration, and now a group of leading Democratic senators has introduced a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill designed to overhaul the current system.

This latest CIR measure was introduced by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), joined (so far) by nine Senate co-sponsors – all Democrats – including party luminaries such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY). According to Senator Menendez, the bill contains enforcement measures designed to toughen border security and step up workplace immigration enforcement, as well as a path to legal residency for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. (See Menendez, Colleagues Re-Introduce Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Press Release, Office of Senator Menendez, 22.Jun.2011.)

The path to citizenship would not be an easy one under the Menendez bill; the press release notes that the measure would require undocumented foreign nationals to “register with the government, pay their taxes, learn English, pay a fine, pass a background check, and wait in line for permanent residence.” At this writing, an official bill summary was not available; sponsors say the bill also would provide:

•    additional resources for the Border Patrol;
•    expanded penalties for passport and document fraud;
•    new requirements for the Department of Homeland Security to track entries and exits at the border;
•    new rules governing detention to ensure U.S. citizens are not unlawfully detained; and
•    new criminal penalties for fraud and misuse of Social Security numbers.

According to Senator Menendez, the bill includes a “mandatory employment verification system” – presumably, some form of E-Verify – to curb the hiring of undocumented immigrants. Many believe that shutting down the underground labor market would have beneficial effects, protecting native-born workers from being underbid by illegal immigrant labor, and, in turn, protecting immigrant workers from exploitation. It also could help to level the playing field for companies whose competitors have taken unfair advantage in the past by hiring illegal immigrant workers.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration. Even if Senate Democrats can find some Republican co-sponsors, the real question is whether any immigration measure – with any path to citizenship for undocumented foreign nationals – has a prayer of getting through the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. According to the brain trust of a major Sunday morning political talk show – ABC News’ This Week, immigration reform is not going anywhere this year. (See Bleak Prospects for Substantive Immigration Debate, by Evan Harris, ABC News, 03.Jul.2011.) The article contends:

“While many political figures will recognize that the immigration system is in need of reform, few have thus far been willing to lead the charge. With elections looming for representatives, the prevailing view has been that immigration is too volatile to deal with on or near an election year.”

As ABC News commentator George Will noted, it’s always either an election year, or a year before an election – suggesting there is never a good time to bring up issues that are so politically fraught. That may be so, but the cost of legislative inaction increases with each passing day, and eventually, Congress will have to deal with the problem. Whether the Menendez bill means light at the end of the tunnel, or just another oncoming train, remains to be seen.

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.