Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus introduced in the House Tuesday the first immigration reform bill in several years, calling on Congress to take up debate on immigration reform as quickly as possible.
"We know we stand where the President of the United States stands. We know we say what the President of the United States has said: It is time to fix our broken immigration system once and for all. This is what the American people want. This is what the American people expect. It is time for Congress to catch up to the common-sense thinking of the American people and enact smart, tough, and sensible immigration reform," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) in a statement.
Beccera joined 86 other co-sponsors to introduce the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 (CIR ASAP)–sponsored by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force.
The bill would offer illegal immigrants an opportunity at legalization if they pay a fine and register with the federal government. The bill also would legislate enforcement provisions to strengthen security at US ports of entry; make permanent electronic employment verification like the E-Verify system; and mandate humane treatment of those detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for deportation.
Gutierrez explained in a statement last week his rationale for the timing of the bill.
"This billwill be presented before Congress recesses for the holidays so that there is no excuse for inaction in the new year," Gutierrez said. "It is the product of months of collaboration with civil rights advocates, labor organizations, and members of Congress. It is an answer to too many years of pain–mothers separated from their children, workers exploited and undermined security at the border–all caused at the hands of a broken immigration system. This bill says ‘enough,’ and presents a solution to our broken system that we as a nation of immigrants can be proud of."
Gutierrez explained at the Tuesday press conference that the Senate would still take the lead on debating immigration reform with a bill to be introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said DHS has provided extensive technical assistance to Schumer and his staff as they have drafted that bill. Napolitano has predicted that Schumer will introduce his bill in early 2010.
Even in the House, however, Gutierrez’s bill is not the preferred legislation for immigration reform. Democratic House leaders are expected to endorse legislation being drafted by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law.
Republicans expressed disappointment with the Gutierrez bill for a variety of reasons. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who introduced an immigration bill with Gutierrez in 2007 (known as the STRIVE Act), protested the lack of a temporary guest worker program in the bill.
"In order for immigration reform to be effective, it needs to be comprehensive. Any bill without a temporary worker program is simply not comprehensive," Flake said in a statement Tuesday.
"I’m also troubled by the weakened legalization requirements in the Gutierrez bill. The STRIVE Act included many penalties for illegal immigrants applying for legal status, such as a $2,000 fine, a touchback provision, and other stringent requirements. Those standards have been watered down or removed in the Gutierrez bill."
The CIR ASAP bill would fine illegal immigrants $500 as opposed to $2,000. It also would not require illegal immigrants to go back to their country of origin to apply for legal status in the United States, dropping the "touchback" provision referenced by Flake.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free enterprise think tank, praised the legislation but cautioned it placed too many regulatory burdens on employers.
"Easing immigration to the US would be an enormous benefit to our economy," said CEI Immigration Policy Analyst Alex Nowrasteh in a statement. "Immigrants, especially the highly skilled, create jobs and economic opportunities for Americans."
The CIR ASAP bill would increase H-1B and other work visas, Nowrasteh noted, but it would place unnecessary burdens on US employers but ofrcing them to use the E-Verify employment verification system. The current level of 85,000 highly skilled workers under the H-1B visa program is not enough to enable US technology firms to grow, Nowrasteh added.
As for opposition to the bill, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) blasted the bill as a giveaway to illegal immigrants and cheap labor employers.
"At a time when some 25 million Americans are either unemployed or relegated to part-time work, the last thing the Democratic majority ought to be focused on is a massive amnesty and immigration expansion bill," FAIR President Dan Stein said in a statement.
"Legalizing millions of low-skill, low-wage workers who would depend heavily on government services is simply bad immigration policy at any point in time. When the federal government isrunning a $1.4 trillion deficit, and numerous state and local governments are facing fiscal crises, it represents the epitome of irresponsibility," he added.
Not only would the bill enact the bad idea of opening a path to legalization for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States, Stein said, but it would weaken immigration enforcement, permit illegal immigrants more opportunities to fight deportation, preempt state immigration laws, and eliminate federal/local enforcement cooperation agreements under section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, among other provisions.
"If congressional leaders were surprised by the intensity of public opposition to amnesty legislation in 2007, when unemployment hovered around 4.6 percent, they had better brace themselves for an even stronger reaction in 2010. CIR ASAP amounts to a fire sale on American citizenship and American jobs and the public will make its voice heard loudly again in 2010," Stein argued.