September 10, 2013

Comprehensive Immigration Reform in the House: Getting Lost in the Shuffle?

Congress is back in session and immigration advocates are watching the House of Representatives to see if that chamber will follow the Senate and pass immigration reform legislation. The conventional wisdom has been that the fate of immigration reform will be decided in the remaining months of 2013 because immigration is too hot a topic to be handled during 2014, an election year. The plan has been for the full House to take up immigration legislation during the September/October timeframe, but now it looks increasingly likely immigration could get crowded out of the schedule. The House already had difficult budget and debt ceiling issues to address; now Syria has been added to the agenda.

The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June 2013 (S.744). The Senate gathered all aspects of immigration reform into one bill. According to Speaker Boehner, the House will not act on the Senate bill. If the House acts, it will be through a series of specific bills addressing discrete aspects of immigration reform. So far, five bills, summarized below, have passed the House committee stage:

Border Security Results Act (H.R. 1417)

  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must develop a strategy to achieve operational control of the border
  • Operational control of high traffic areas must be achieved within two years
  • Operational control of the southwest border must be achieved within five years
  • DHS must develop and implement a biometric exit control plan for all ports of entry to track exits from the U.S.

Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act (SAFE Act) (H.R. 2278)

  • Authorizes state and local officials to enforce immigration laws
  • Makes knowing unlawful presence in the U.S. a federal crime
  • Requires DHS to implement biometric entry and exit tracking system
  • Enhances penalties for immigration violations

Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772)

  • Requires all employers to use the electronic E-Verify work authorization verification system
  • Most employers would not be required to re-verify their existing workforce
  • Increased penalties for employer noncompliance
  • State and local employment verification laws would be invalidated

SKILLS Visa Act (H.R. 2131)

  • Increases the 65,000 annual H-1B visa quota to 155,000
  • Increases the 20,000 annual H-1B visa quota for persons with U.S. advanced degrees to 40,000, but limits use to graduates in STEM fields
  • H-4 spouses would be authorized to work in the U.S.
  • New wage requirements would apply to L-1B and TN workers as well as F-1 Optional Practical Training students
  • Creates new green card category for U.S. advanced degree graduates in STEM fields
  • Increases EB-2 and EB-3 green card numbers
  • Eliminates per country annual green card limits
  • Creates new green card categories for immigrant investors and entrepreneurs
  • EB-5 investor visa minimum investment thresholds (currently $1 million and $500,000) would be raised and indexed to inflation
  • Reduces family-based green card categories and eliminates diversity visa lottery

Agricultural Guestworkers Act (H.R. 1773)

  • H-2C visa would allow registered employers to employ temporary agricultural workers on a contract or at-will basis
  • 500,000 annual limit

To date, the House has not introduced legislation to legalize the approximately 11 million persons now in the U.S. without authorization. Such legislation is probably forthcoming, along with a bill authorizing visas for lesser-skilled workers and a bill legalizing young people brought unlawfully to the U.S. when they were children. On a separate track, the bipartisan "Gang of Seven" continues its work on a comprehensive bill to address all the aspects of immigration reform.

If the House does act on at least some aspects of immigration reform, the House legislation and S.744 would go to a conference committee to work out a compromise bill. A conference committee bill would then have to pass both the Senate and House before presentment to President Obama to be signed into law.

Passage of meaningful immigration reform, a daunting task given the deep partisan divide in Congress, has gotten even more complicated with the return of other contentious political issues. The Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate once again are at odds over passage of a federal budget and whether or not to increase the debt ceiling this fall. The new wild card is whether Congress will endorse any form of U.S. military action against Syria. Political wrangling over these front-burner topics could push immigration reform off to the congressional sidelines for months or years. Some political pundits have gone so far as to declare immigration reform dead until 2015 or even 2017. Time will tell.

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