AS/COA Online - Congress Starts Engine on Immigration Reform

Even as the U.S. Congress hustles to forge ahead on health care, an Illinois lawmaker introduced an immigration bill on December 15. Over a dozen lawmakers joined Rep. Luis Gutierrez to back submission of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act (CIR ASAP). The proposed legislation represents the first immigration bill introduced since 2007 reform attempts fell apart. “We have waited patiently for a workable solution to our immigration crisis to be taken up by this Congress and our president,” said Gutierrez in a press release. “The time for waiting is over.” But, with issues like unemployment and Afghanistan on Washington’s table, the wait could well continue. Meanwhile, Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) are expected to unveil a bipartisan bill in early 2010.

The introduction of the bill by Gutierrez comes as no surprise. The congressman has pushed for immigration reform since the early days of the Obama administration and even went on a five-week tour through 14 cities to go to bat for the cause. His legislation won support from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Asian-Pacific American Caucus, and the Congressional Black Caucus. As the Immigration Chronicle blog notes, the CIR ASAP bill covers familiar territory, with plans for boosted border security, an employee verification system, and a path to legalization for qualified illegal immigrants.  More specifically, it includes proposals to keep immigrant families together; expand federal funding of immigration integration; strengthen the DREAM Act; improve detention conditions; and require undocumented immigrants to pay a $500 fine, learn English, and pass background checks before attaining a six-year visa followed by a green card. It also proposes to step up penalties for employers who hire unauthorized workers.

With congressional attentions focused elsewhere, Gutierrez’s move may be as much about keeping eyes on the immigration-reform prize as getting quick results. The Gaggle blog’s Arian Campo’ Flores writes that no quick turnaround is expected on immigration legislation at a time when unemployment hovers at the double-digit level. Still, the bill serves as “a strident warning by one of the Hispanic Caucus's most passionately pro-immigrant members that the Obama administration had better keep its word and tackle immigration reform in the new year, or face a Latino revolt.” The Oval Office has indicated that immigration reform has to wait until next year but remains a top priority. Last month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano suggested that a successful reform package would function like a “three-legged stool” involving effective enforcement, a smooth system for legal immigration, and a “firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here.”

As AS/COA's Jason Marczak points out in an
AQ blog post, action could come when Schumer launches a Senate proposal for immigration reform. Schumer, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, is the point person on a bipartisan bill that he and Graham are slated to release early next year. Even if Senate legislation wins support, reform faces obstacles ahead of mid-term elections. President Barack Obama has also sought to lower expectations on celerity. When meeting with his Mexican counterpart earlier this year, Obama warned that the road to reform could be slow going. “With respect to immigration reform, I continue to believe that is also in the long-term interests of the United States,” he said. “Now, am I going to be able to snap my fingers and get this done? No.