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October 2007, Volume 14, Number 4

Congress: Incremental Reform, Trafficking

Comprehensive immigration reform stalled in the Senate in June 2007, when opponents of legalization or amnesty were able to block consideration of a bill that would have given many unauthorized foreigners in the US a path to legal status and would have selected future immigrants on the basis of a point system. With the defeat of comprehensive reform, some urged incremental reform, urging Congress to approve legalization for unauthorized youth brought into the US by their parents and a legalization and guest worker program for agriculture.

The measures that would bring incremental reform are entitled DREAM and AgJOBS. The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would provide a path to legal residency for unauthorized graduates of US high schools. Eligible youth would have had to enter the US by age 16, be in the US at least five years and be under the age of 30, and have no criminal record. These high-school graduates would receive conditional US residency that could be turned into a regular legal immigrant status during the next six years by attending at least two years of college in the US or serving in the US military for at least two years.

An estimated 65,000 unauthorized foreigners a year graduate from US high schools, and 13,000 are believed to go on to US colleges. One estimate was that DREAM would cover 279,000 high school graduates now under the age of 24, and another 715,000 now aged five to 17 who would become eligible in the future.

Republicans opposed to amnesty prevented the attachment of DREAM to the FY08 Department of Defense Authorization Bill (H.R.1585). As introduced, DREAM would have repealed a 1996 law that prohibits states from charging unauthorized foreigners lower in-state tuition and out-of-state students higher tuition; the effort to repeal this provision was dropped.

However, ten states- California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington-give unauthorized foreigners who graduate from high schools in the state in-state tuition rates. Critics note that legal foreigners with student visas pay higher out-of-sate rates.

The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act would allow up to 1.5 million unauthorized farm workers to "earn" a legal immigrant status by continuing to do farm work over the next five years and revise the existing H-2A program to make it more employer-friendly. AgJOBS, which was expected to be attached to the Farm Bill in October 2007, drew opposition from Republican senators who proposed an alternative guest worker program that would make it easier for farmers to hire legal workers, but have the migrants return to their countries of origin after 10 months of US farm work.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted July 6-8, 2007 reported that over 60 percent of respondents considered illegal immigration very or extremely important http://www.pollingreport.com/immigration.htm). An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll done June 8-11, 2007 found respondents evenly divided over whether immigration helps the US more than it hurts the US. However, large majorities favor new fines on employers who hire illegal immigrants and more fences and agents on the Mexico-US border. A majority of respondents opposed giving unauthorized foreigners who paid fines and satisfied other requirements legal immigrant status. At the same time, a majority also agreed that it is not realistic to deport most of the unauthorized foreigners in the US.

Los Angeles police confronted a group of Spanish-speaking demonstrators in MacArthur Park calling for legalization in May 2007, resulting in casualties. The police department issued a 100-page mea culpa in October 2007, and the deputy police chief blamed for the lack of planning for the rally resigned rather than face demotion.

Trafficking. In October 2000, Congress enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act after hearing from the US Department of State that up to 50,000 women and girls were trafficked into the US each year. The number came from the CIA, which based it on a review of reports in foreign newspapers.

The Justice Department spent $150 million on 42 task forces to find these victims. Between 2000 and 2007, 1,362 victims of human trafficking have been certified by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Trafficking is defined as holding someone through force, fraud or coercion for sex or other work. Between 2000 and 2007, the US government has spent more than $500 million to combat trafficking, with 10 federal agencies reporting on their anti-trafficking efforts to a Cabinet-level task force chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Much of the anti-trafficking money was given as grants to groups that seek to educate trafficking victims about their rights.

By 2006, the estimated number of people trafficked into the US was reduced to 14,500 to 17,500 a year. The anti-trafficking effort continues, in part because of a confluence of interest between Christian and feminist groups. Newly formed groups receiving federal funds educate local police and hospitals about how to identify and treat victims of trafficking.

The Senate in July 2007 debated but failed to act on a $3 billion Republican bill that would have provided funds for 700 miles of fencing, 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 23,000 Border Patrol agents, 105 ground-based radar sensors and four unmanned planes. Terming illegal immigration an emergency, Republican senators sought to give police officers and hospital workers the power to inquire about anyone's immigration status.

President Bush and most Senate Democrats opposed the border enforcement bill. During the debate, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) appealed for approval of AgJOBS, saying "the catastrophe is now; the harvest is now." She asserted that farmers were leaving land fallow and moving their operations to Mexico to be assured a labor force.

Visas. Congress approved legislation in summer 2007 to allow foreigners from countries with visa refusal rates of less than 10 percent to enter the US for up to 90 days without visas. Currently, 27 countries participate in the visa-waiver program. The new law will allow 12 more countries to qualify, including South Korea, Israel, Taiwan, Brazil and the Czech Republic.

Jerry Markon, "Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence," Washington Post, September 23, 2007. Nicole Gaouette, "GOP border bill fails in Senate," Los Angeles Times, July 26, 2007.