On Monday 22 April 2013, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on "The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, S.744", otherwise known as the Immigration Reform Bill. The article presents the latest available information regarding the immigration reform debate and explains what the next steps are for this critical bill to become law.
What are the latest developments in the comprehensive immigration reform debate?
On the 17th of April, the 'Gang of Eight', a bipartisan group of senators working on immigration reform proposals, issued the full text of the Immigration Reform Bill. A summary of its key provisions can be found here.
Over the course of seven hours on 22 April, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the views of a wide array of stakeholders on US immigration reform proposals, including US businesses, immigration associations, non-profit organisations, religious organisations, former Attorneys General and former Congressmen. Both proponents and opponents of immigration reforms voiced their concerns and suggested various changes to the immigration reform bill.
The debate got heated at several junctures. One such point was reached when Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lamented attempts by immigration opponents to exploit the recent Boston bombings [allegedly carried out by immigrants to the USA, one of them believed to be a naturalized US citizen and the other a lawful permanent resident] and undermine efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. In what was viewed as a thinly veiled accusation aimed at several Republicans, he further added, "[l]et no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hardworking people." Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) responded by defending his criticism of immigration reform in light of the Boston events, arguing that it is important for loopholes to be exposed.
Another divisive issue, raised by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the Center for Immigration Studies [a think tank advocating for stricter US immigration laws], was the bill's proposed path to citizenship for undocumented foreign nationals already in the US. Commenting that the bill might as well have been dubbed, "No illegal alien left behind", such sentiments were tempered by immigration advocates who spoke of the significant contributions, economic and otherwise, made by undocumented individuals. Senator Cruz warned that including the citizenship path proposal "jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration reform bill", but his calls for piecemeal immigration reform only in areas where bipartisan consensus exists were rebuffed. Interestingly enough, the Bible was quoted at one point in support of a path to citizenship when Mr. Fleming, a Pastor at Champion Forest Baptist Church, cited to Leviticus 19: "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born." This line of argument was cut off by individuals from both sides of the issue.
Several speakers testified that, while the bill is an excellent starting point, it is incomplete without provisions for LGBT couples who are presently unable to sponsor their same sex spouse through the US family immigration system even if they are legally married under US state law or foreign country law. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Arizona) spoke of his personal experience of having been separated from his Panamanian partner for a year when his partner's visa expired and he had to leave the USA. The American Immigration Lawyers Association also supported amendments to achieve immigration equality, citing to an estimated 36,000 affected bi-national couples, half of whom are raising children, and examples of Americans who must live in exile abroad to be with their spouse. For more on this subject, a compilation of stories of how couples are affected by lack of LGBT immigration equality is available at http://www.domaproject.org/.
Despite the evident tension during the Senate Judicial Committee's hearing, there appears to be wide-spread consensus that the time for comprehensive immigration reform has arrived. In particular, there is overwhelming support for increasing immigration options for highly skilled individuals, particularly those with STEM degree, and allowing greater opportunities for foreign investors to establish businesses in the USA. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano reaffirmed her commitment to immigration reform in a statement released on 23 April: "[T]he Department stands ready to implement common-sense immigration reform that would continue investments in border security, crack down on companies that hire undocumented workers, improve the legal immigration system for employment-sponsored and family-sponsored immigrants, and establish a responsible pathway to earned citizenship."
What lies ahead?
The "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act" will go through a mark-up procedure at the Senate Judiciary Committee. This means that any of the 10 Democrats and 8 Republicans who form the committee are able to propose amendments to the bill. At the end of the mark-up process, a vote will be held and, if the bill secures a majority of votes from committee members, it will move to the Senate floor.
The bill will be further debated on the floor of the Senate and it is likely that a filibuster will be required. This means that a minimum sixty percent vote will have to be obtained to end the debate and move forward to voting on the bill. The House of Representatives is also working on an immigration reform bill, the contents of which are unknown but are believed to largely mirror the provisions in the bill already introduced.
The American Immigration Law Office is a US immigration law firm in London, UK, offering legal assistance with US immigration through marriage, family, and employment, and all other US immigration matters. We will continue to monitor developments concerning US immigration reform and advise any affected clients.