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5/17: Senators Reach Agreement to Proceed on Immigration Reform
Released 18 May 2007  By National Immigration Forum

Senators Reach Agreement to Proceed on Immigration Reform

May 17, 2007
National Immigration Forum

Today, Senators who have been working for weeks to craft a comprehensive immigration reform deal announced they have an agreement on a package that will serve as the basis to begin debate on the Senate floor next week.

The agreement is a mixed bag for immigrants and for the future of immigration. Nevertheless, it is a long way from a proposal floated several weeks ago by the White House and Republican Senators, including those Senators opposed to reform. Senators Kennedy, Menendez, Feinstein, and Salazar (and their staffs) have been working very hard, almost around the clock as the deadline for an agreement approached. Nevertheless, Democratic supporters of comprehensive reform could only go so far in the context of back room negotiations with conservative Republicans who up to now have opposed reform. And, unfortunately, these Democratic Senators were forced to negotiate with reform opponents because Republicans were threatening to filibuster any move to consider immigration reform legislation that did not result from the negotiations. To cut off a filibuster, Democrats need 60 votes.

Let the Public Debate Begin!

Though the agreement has many serious flaws, the Forum, nevertheless, is urging the Senate to proceed with the debate. Here’s why:

- This is the starting point. It is not enacted legislation. We believe it is worth fighting to improve the many troubling provisions in the agreement, and we have multiple opportunities to do so. There will be amendments offered on the Senate floor, and many supporters of reform in the Senate are already getting ready to propose changes during the floor debate. Next, there will be a House bill. It will not be the same as the Senate bill, and it will likely at the outset not include some of the most troubling provisions of the Senate package. Once the House and Senate each pass a bill, there will be a conference committee to work out the differences. That conference committee will be controlled by a Democratic leadership that is much more amenable to workable and comprehensive reform than the Republican leadership that controlled committee makeup and the agenda last year.

- The risks of proceeding must be weighed against the risks of not proceeding. There is no guarantee that we are going to win enough changes to make this initial offering something that will reasonably fix many of the problems of our broken immigration system. In fact, we can be reasonably certain that any final product will contain elements that we do not like and that will create some other problems down the road. That is the reality of forging policy in a political process. But we won’t know what we can win unless we try. While we have “three bites of the apple” in the Senate, House and conference, we can also stop in mid-bite, if the legislative debate unexpectedly goes against us.

While we cannot know what we will end up with if we proceed, it is crystal clear what we end up with if we do not proceed: the status quo for at least two more years, and probably longer, until Congress takes up immigration reform again. To put things in context, more money is being appropriated by Congress for enforcement, and that trend is likely to continue, with the result being that many thousands of families will be split up as the raids and other enforcement activities continue. Many hundreds will die in the desert, because they have no legal way to get into the country. For the sake of those families and those individuals, now is not the time to raise the white flag.

- The “deal” contains many of the elements of comprehensive reform. To begin, the proposal includes many elements that will improve the lives of millions. Those elements represent remarkable concessions from restrictionist Senators and are a tribute to the hard work of the Senators who have been engaged in a scrappy fight for comprehensive reform. Some of what we have heard so far is described below.

Positive Elements of the Senate Deal

- Legalization for most of the 12 million. As we understand it, the vast majority of current undocumented immigrants would be able to register, pay fines, undergo security screenings, and receive work authorization, travel permission, and protection from deportation. After several years and meeting additional requirements, including an English requirement, they would be able to adjust to legal permanent residency. There are components of the legalization program that still must be changed, including an onerous “touchback” provision, but on balance the program would be a large step toward bringing the undocumented out of the shadows and allowing them to live without the constant fear of being rounded up and deported.

- Significant family backlog reduction. Over the next eight years, much of the family-based immigration backlog of more than four million is proposed to be eliminated. In some categories, the backlog now stretches 22 years. There is an arbitrary cutoff date that will, however, leave many unable to take advantage of this provision (see below).

- AgJOBs and DREAM. AgJOBs would legalize undocumented immigrant farmworkers. It’s provisions are the product of years of negotiations and determined advocacy by advocates for farmworkers and growers. The DREAM Act has also been on the agenda of advocates for several years. Both are included in the Senate deal.

- Due Process (“Title II”). In the Senate-passed bill last year, the provisions relating to due process included provisions pulled directly from the enforcement-only House bill, the Sensenbrenner bill. During the negotiation, we understand that significant improvements were made in this section of the bill.

Elements of the Senate Deal that Must Be Changed

- A point system points us away from a tradition that has worked well for our country. The deal replaces much of the current system, where most immigrants are selected on the basis of ties to family or employers, with a point system that would have us select immigrants on the basis of education, work, family, English language ability, and other factors. There would be cuts of 140,000 family reunification visas, eliminating the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor their siblings and adult children. During the negotiations, however, Democrats fought hard to keep the principle of family reunification on the table, and to ensure that the new point-based green card structure would give significant points to individuals with family already in the U.S. Not changed are the 500,000 visas a year for spouses, minor children, and parents, except that the category for parents would now be subject to a cap of 40,000. Combined with the family backlog reduction mentioned above, for the next eight years, some 75% of legal immigration would still be family reunification. After that, how family immigration is affected will turn on the balance of points for family relationships, work, and skills. If the family preference categories cannot be restored in the legislative fight ahead, then the point system must be fair to all immigrant families seeking to reunite with loved ones. We believe this is an issue we can fight to improve going forward, and House leaders are already signaling a commitment to protecting family ties as the cornerstone of U.S. immigration.

- Temporary visas and the path to permanence. This is one of the most problematic areas of the deal. On the upside, workers coming in the future will have legal status and labor protections, something denied them under the status quo. However, without fixing the path to permanency, the new system will create conditions that will lead to a rapidly increasing pool of undocumented immigrants in the future or creating a pool of second class non-citizens, defeating the goals of this reform.

- Family visas: some who played by the rules are inexplicably cut out. Although the deal contains backlog reductions for most family-based immigrants who are currently in line waiting for a visa, there is an arbitrary cutoff date in May 2005, after which anyone who applied will lose their place in line and will be required to re-apply through the point system. This should be fixable, as it may be hard for advocates of this provision to justify punishing those who played by the rules.

- “Touchback.” Undocumented immigrants (after they obtain their “Z” temporary visas), must apply for their adjustment to permanent residence at the U.S. consulate in their home country. This provision is an unnecessary, bureaucratic step that will be very burdensome for many immigrants eligible to legalize.

- Families of Legalizing Immigrants. The agreement does not allow the spouse and children of an undocumented immigrant to join the legalizing immigrant immediately if they are outside the country. Only when the legalizing immigrant obtains permanent residence—a process that will take several years—will the spouse and minor children (if, that is, the children are still minor children) be able to join the principle immigrant.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association has posted an outline of the agreement on their Web site, and it can be found here:

Vote to Proceed Scheduled for Monday Afternoon

We have not seen the actual language of the agreement, and Senators were working right up until a press conference Thursday, which was at one point up in the air because Senators were still arguing over details. Senator Reid has scheduled a vote to proceed with the debate for Monday, May 21. If Senators vote to proceed with the debate, the amendment process will begin on the Senate floor. To improve this bill will be a huge battle. Restrictionist Senators will be offering amendments to make the bill worse. Reform-minded Senators are already preparing amendments to improve the bill. Senators will be under intense pressure, as this is a battle that will be very closely watched by millions on both sides of the debate.

For the sake of the undocumented immigrants who otherwise face (at best) years more of living in the shadows, we believe that this is a battle worth fighting.

As details and/or summaries of the agreement become available, we will distribute them.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a wild two weeks.

Forum Press Statement

The Forum’s press statement on the Senate’s agreement can be found on our Web site here:

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