June 28, 2013

Senate Passes Landmark Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill; Future in House Uncertain

On June 27, 2013, the U.S. Senate passed the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013" (S.744). We have written about this bipartisan Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) bill previously. The vote was 68-32, with all Democrats and 14 Republicans voting in favor. Republican support was increased by a major amendment that significantly enhanced the resources to be allocated to border security.

The Senate bill represents a major overhaul of the current immigration system:

  • The approximately 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. without authorization would have a path to lawful status and ultimately citizenship
  • Border security would be significantly strengthened, with hundreds of miles of additional fencing, aerial and remote sensing, and a doubling of the Border Patrol
  • All employers would be required to use an electronic employment verification system
  • New visa categories for lesser-skilled and agricultural workers would provide legal means for foreign nationals to meet future U.S. employment needs in these areas
  • The number of available H-1B visas for professional workers would increase
  • There would be significant increases in the number of green cards available for higher-skilled workers, significantly reducing long wait times
  • A new green card category based on merit would be created

With Senate passage of S.744, attention now focuses on what the GOP-controlled House of Representatives will (or won't) do. The House will not take up S.744. If the House does anything, it will be through its own bill or bills. A bipartisan "Gang of Seven" (Eight, until Rep. Raul Labrador left the group) is working on a CIR bill that will presumably include legalization for the undocumented, stronger border security, work visas for lesser-skilled workers, and higher-skilled worker visa and green card enhancements. Rep. Labrador may introduce his own CIR bill.

House Judiciary Chair Robert Goodlatte does not favor a comprehensive approach. He prefers to address the various aspects of immigration reform through separate bills. The Judiciary Committee has so far passed bills on immigration enforcement, agricultural workers and employment verification. The committee is now working on a bill that would be beneficial for employment-based temporary visas and green cards. So far, the Judiciary Committee has not considered any bill that would provide for legalization of the undocumented.

Prospects for passage of CIR in the House are uncertain. Speaker John Boehner has stated that he will not bring an immigration bill to a vote unless a majority of the House Republicans support the bill; that condition may not be met. Many Republican strategists think the party needs to pass CIR to improve its election results with fast-growing Latino and other immigrant communities. But many House Republicans are in conservative districts where their concern is not reaching out to immigrant communities, but rather avoiding a primary challenge from a more conservative opponent.

If any immigration bill were to pass the House, the House bill and S.744 would go to a conference committee to work out a compromise bill. Any bill coming out of committee would likely be seen by immigration reform proponents as more restrictive than S.744. A conference committee bill would have to pass both the Senate and House.

Timing is a factor. Many commentators still say that CIR must happen in 2013 or it will not happen at all because 2014 is an election year. Getting House members to vote in favor of a controversial immigration bill as the election draws closer will be a major challenge. In addition, the House has other important matters to deal with during the rest of 2013, so there is some question as to whether the Representatives will use their limited time to pursue immigration reform when many in the chamber are opposed. Stay tuned.

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