Released 24 December 2005  By National Immigration Forum
More on the Sensenbrenner/King Bill and Next Steps in Comprehensive Reform Advocacy
December 22, 2005
National Immigration Forum
H.R. 4437: Observations from the House Floor Debate
Last week, the House passed H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act. If enacted and fully enforced, it would make millions of undocumented immigrants felons, fine or jail hundreds of thousands of American employers, and put millions of other Americans behind bars as 'alien smugglers'. It would require the hiring of tens of thousands of prosecutors, judges, and court personnel, and require the building of hundreds more jails.
James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chief sponsor of the legislation, told the House during the floor debate that this portrayal of the legislation was just alarmist rhetoric. 'There is such a thing as prosecutorial discretion,' he said in responding to critics of the bill.
So, here was the chief sponsor of this punitive legislation telling us that, really, the law will not be enforced except at the 'discretion' of a prosecutor. Not only would H.R. 4437 not fix our broken immigration system, but it promises to lead to a perception of greater lawlessness, as there will be yet more laws on the books that will be routinely ignored. This should only strengthen our arguments for comprehensive immigration reform.
Civics Lesson: Immigration is Not a Partisan Issue
Warning: The following paragraphs may not be suitable for idealistic audiences.
In our previous policy update, I listed the Democrats who voted for the Sensenbrenner/King bill and provided the House Republican leadership with their margin of victory on this anti-immigrant legislation. That was not the whole story.
At the outset of the House floor debate on H.R. 4437, despite repeated requests, we never received assurances that the Democratic leadership would 'whip' the vote. The Democratic Whip is the second-highest ranking member of the Democratic caucus. Since November 2002, the Democratic Whip has been Steny Hoyer of Maryland. The Whip is responsible for talking to Democratic members about their level of support for a piece of legislation before it comes to the floor for a vote. The Whip also works with Members to build strong support within the caucus for the Democratic agenda. If the Whip's office failed to whip this vote, it was because the leadership had decided that this bill was not high enough on the Democratic agenda to corral Democrats into voting against it.
Since a number of advocacy groups in Washington were focused on this bill, we set up our own informal whip operation, contacting all Democratic offices to find out where the members stood on the bill, and feeding the intelligence to friendly congressional offices. As the final vote approached, we discovered that the lack of help from Democratic leadership on the vote was not the only roadblock being erected by the Democratic leadership.
According to its mission statement, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee serves as the official national Democratic campaign committee charged with recruiting, assisting, funding, and electing Democrats to the U. S. House of Representatives. In other words, this organization is focused on gaining more political power for Democrats. Rahm Emanuel, a representative from Illinois, chairs the DCCC. Apparently, it was his judgment, and that of other leaders in the Democratic Party, that at least in certain districts a vote against the Sensenbrenner bill might interfere with the mission of gaining more power for Democrats. As has been reported in the press, Emanuel and Hoyer were whipping this vote, but they were urging members they considered 'vulnerable' to vote for the Sensenbrenner bill. While the Republican leadership was open about its support for this anti-immigrant legislation, the Democratic leadership was supporting it by subterfuge. They were not entirely successful in keeping it quiet. There were witnesses, and now the matter has been reported in the press.
For more on this, see our publication, Facts on Immigration, Both Parties Could Feel the Sting of a Latino, Immigrant Backlash, which includes press coverage of the Democratic subterfuge:
It is part of the unfortunate context within which we advocate for fair and generous policies for immigrants that leadership in both parties is focused on gaining more power for their party. As long as they perceive that beating up on immigrants is the politically expedient thing to do, they will do so. We must make sure that perception is changed, so that the leadership perceives that beating up on immigrants is what will make their party vulnerable. At the risk of stating the obvious, we cannot rely on them to do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do. That is not part of their mission statement.
Where was the President?
Oh yeah. The President has been largely absent from the discussion on this issue, and little attention is being paid to the administration in this fight. The President has made some vague pronouncements favoring comprehensive reform over the past several years. Unfortunately, when the administration gets specific about specific legislation, it has taken a position (as with the REAL ID Act) in favor of punitive legislation. The administration issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on H.R. 4437. While it expressed concerns about provisions which it felt would interfere with various policies or operations of DHS, the SAP opened with: The Administration strongly supports House passage of H.R.4437
You can find the administration's SAP here:
What to Do?
By now you're probably digging out that magazine clip you saved of the remote Pacific island you'd like to retire to in order to get away from all this corruption.
If that's not an option, take a look at how you're representative voted:
If your representative voted against this bill, call or write to thank him or her. This is especially important for those of you who are represented by one of the 17 Republican members who went against their leadership, most of whom objected because of the way business is treated in the bill, or because the bill did not contain comprehensive immigration reform. If your representative voted for H.R. 4437, call or write with your strong disapproval. This is not going to change the vote. It's still important to do.
Why? Here's an example. One moderate Democrat who does not always vote our way, but who did this time gets, on average, 200 anti-immigrant letters a week (many are form letters). This wears on the staff that must respond, and creates the perception that the public is overwhelmingly in support of tougher measures against immigrants. Party functionaries concerned with getting more Democrats or Republicans elected do not want members or candidates taking a position that is contrary to what is perceived to be a safe stance.
Our public opinion research shows the public would support a solution that includes legalization of the undocumented with certain conditions. When presented with choices, the public is realistic. But this message is difficult to get across to politicians who are hearing every day from constituents who want a clampdown. The 'silent majority' is not going to communicate this message to the politicians. People are busy, and immigration is not much of an issue for most Americans.
Communicating a pro-immigrant message is our job. It is our job because we are the immigration attorneys who must deal with the Byzantine legal system in which our clients are trapped. It is our job because we are the leaders of the communities of faith to whom immigrants are turning because they have no one else to go to. It is our job because we are the owners of businesses who need immigrants to work for us. It is our job because we are the labor organizers who see how difficult life is for people working on the margins of our economy. It is our job because we are advocates for immigrants and, well, that's our job.
So, do whatever you can call or write, have your clients call or write, have your family call or write, have your fellow workers call or write. We need to be regularly and in great numbers contacting our representatives. And I apologize for sounding like a broken record (defective CD).
The American Immigration Lawyers Association has posted Thanks and No Thanks letters on its Web site, which you can use to send an e-mail message to your representative. You can access that action alert here:
After you are done with your representative, it is important that you reach out to your individual Senators, to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and to Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and urge them to reject any and all measures resembling HR 4437, which will do absolutely nothing to fix our broken immigration system or make us safer. When the next session of Congress begins, there may not be much time between Senate Judiciary Committee consideration of immigration reform and the consideration of immigration legislation on the floor of the Senate. Specifically, we need to tell the Senate:
- The debate about how to fix our broken immigration system will begin in the Senate, most likely in February 2006.
- We expect the Senate to approach this from a more thoughtful and rationale perspective than did the House of Representatives. We expect the Senate to offer a comprehensive and workable immigration reform plan.
- The only way to get control of our borders and make us safe is through a comprehensive approach that will address the 11 million people here without papers. It must also allow for greater legal opportunities for workers who will enter in the future to fill needed jobs, while protecting the rights of US and foreign born workers, and for family members coming to reunite with their families.
- We have spent the last 20 years tightening immigration enforcement. It hasn't worked. It is not rationale to try to enforce unworkable laws that do not match the reality of the economic and labor needs of the country. Until the laws are in line with reality and provide a safe, legal, and orderly way for migrants to come to work and be with family, and for those here to come out of the shadows and become integrated into society, we cannot hope to gain control of our broken immigration system.
- We urge you to enact truly comprehensive immigration reform, reform that will work. We urge you to reject enforcement-only measures which hurt communities and do nothing to move us closer to getting control of our borders.
- We also urge you to realistically address the issue of the 11 million undocumented people in this country, many of whom have substantial ties to the U.S. and will not comply with a program that will require them to leave the country in exchange for a temporary work visa.
You should also tell Senators what it is about H.R. 4437 that is most objectionable to you. For highlights of the bill, see:
For More Information
For highlights of the bill, see our brief summary, Sensenbrenner-King Bill At A Glance. http://www.immigrationforum.org/documents/PolicyWire/Legislation/SenseKingGlance.pdf
This document will be updated as the more detailed summaries that are being prepared incorporate the amendments passed during the House floor debate.
Facts on Immigration: Immigration: Awaiting Real Reform
For a reaction to the administration's support of H.R. 4437, see the following News Release from the National Council of La Raza:
For more on the Whip, see:
For more on the DCCC, see:
We will post more information summarizing and analyzing the legislation early in the new year. In the meantime, Happy Holidays!