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January 2014, Volume 21, Number 1

Immigration Reform Stalls

Immigration reform took a back seat to other issues in Fall 2013, including the federal budget for 2014, the government debt ceiling, and the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act. The major immigration reform issues remained the same: what combination of increased border and interior enforcement, legalization for some of the 12 million unauthorized foreigners in the US, and new guest worker programs is optimal?

The Senate approved the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S 744) on a 68-32 vote in June 2013, and the House Judiciary Committee approved four bills in June 2013 to increase enforcement against unauthorized migration and to modify guest worker programs for agriculture and IT. However, the House did not approve any of these bills, so there was no conference committee with the Senate on an immigration bill.

Advocates of the Senate's S 744 comprehensive immigration reform bill would like the full House to enact at least one bill so that there can be a House-Senate conference committee to iron out a compromise bill. They hope that House Republicans who oppose "amnesty" for unauthorized foreigners would accept a conference-approved bill that includes the increased enforcement that restrictionists want and the earned path to legalization that admissionists want. House Republican leaders rejected this approach, decrying a conference-written comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Migrant advocates including unions are most concerned about a path to legal status for unauthorized foreigners, while business groups are most interested in new guest worker programs. Both believe that more enforcement is necessary to persuade enforcement-first legislators to embrace legalization and more guest workers.

There were demonstrations around the US on October 5, 2013 in support of the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill, and a march on the capital October 8, 2013 that resulted in 150 arrests, including the arrests of eight House members who promised the crowd they would try to persuade the House to vote on immigration reform before the end of 2013.

In January 2014, advocates spoke of the House approving some kind of immigration reform legislation by May or June 2014, so that there is time to conference with the Senate and approve a bill that President Obama could sign before September 2014.

House. After temporary fixes to the budget and debt issues in October 2013, President Obama urged House Republicans to pass an immigration reform bill.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) responded: "the House will not consider any massive, Obamacare-style legislation that no one understands. Instead, the House is committed to a common sense, step-by-step approach that gives Americans confidence that reform is done the right way." House Republican leaders announced that they would develop "principles" to guide their approach to immigration reform.

President Obama in November 2013 tried to restart immigration reform discussions by saying that he was open to the House's piecemeal approach of separate bills tackling enforcement, legalization and guest workers, re-opening the discussion of what should happen to the estimated 12 million unauthorized foreigners in the US. Should they have an earned path to full US citizenship or only a legal status that includes the right to work and perhaps access to welfare benefits, but not an option to become naturalized US citizens?

Some migrant advocates say that the strategy of "US citizenship or nothing" could leave unauthorized foreigners in the US with nothing. They note that, as of 2013, only 36 percent of Mexican-born legal immigrants who were eligible to become naturalized US citizens did so. However, most migrant advocates insist that unauthorized foreigners who are legalized must have the option to become naturalized US citizens.

A November 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute reported that 63 percent of Americans support a pathway to US citizenship for unauthorized foreigners in the US. Some 14 percent support providing unauthorized foreigners legal residency but not a path to US citizenship, and 18 percent favor deporting unauthorized foreigners.

The Wall Street Journal reported on December 26, 2013 that efforts to convince Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to support the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill backfired. Activists led by the United Farm Workers union several times mounted protests in McCarthy's Bakersfield office, prompting counter-demonstrations that have made McCarthy reluctant to embrace an immigration reform that legalizes unauthorized foreigners.

DACA. Since August 2012, the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program has allowed unauthorized foreign youth brought to the US before age 16 and now under 30 to receive two-year work and residence permits if they were continuously in the US since June 15, 2007 at a cost of $465. Over 500,000 unauthorized youth applied in the first 15 months, and almost all of those who filed completed applications were approved.

Only two percent of applications were denied, although four percent were returned to applicants because of missing materials. Denied applicants lose their $465 application fee, but are not subject to any special enforcement actions.

Over three-fourths of DACA applicants are under 23 and most arrived in the US before the age of 10; the peak year of entry was 2000. In the major states with DACA applicants, including California, Texas and New York, those who receive DACA credentials can obtain driver's licenses (45 states) and in-state tuition (19 states).

DACA applicants appear to be empowered by their legal status to ask for help for themselves and family members. Some NGOs who assisted DACA applicants reported that many returned to seek assistance for unauthorized family members. Some say that the DACA experience bodes well for a broader legalization program.