House Judiciary Committee Speaks on Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR)

Congress is serious about immigration reform.  On Tuesday, February 5th, House congressional members heard testimony from various public interest organizations, in two parts, for a nearly six-hour hearing.

The topic was “America’s Immigration System: Opportunities for Legal Immigration and Enforcement of Laws against Illegal Immigration.” Present were many House Committee Members, who posed many questions in order to further one agenda or another.  The Committee is chaired this year by Honorable Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).  The first panel of witnesses comprised of individuals who have been very vocal in the immigration reform circuit:

  • Vivek Wadwha, Director of Research, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University
  • Michael Teitelbaum, Sr. Advisor Sloan Foundation, Harvard Law School
  • Dr. Puneet S. Arora, VP Immigration Voice
  • Honorable Julian Castro, Mayor, San Antonio, TX

The second panel of witnesses was asked to testify about immigration enforcement:

  • Julie Meyers Wood, President Guidepost Solutions LLC
  • Chris Crane, President, National ICE Council 118
  • Jessica Vaughan, Director Policy Studies, Center for Immigration Studies
  • Muzzaffar Chishti, Director, Migration Policy Institute

Tuesday’s hearing revealed that while there is majority consensus on the need for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), the road to achieving it will be a difficult one.  The hearing gave the public insight into how the sausage is made (and it is not pretty). There were many mini battles fought over interpretation of facts and ideas based on the statements and questions offered during the hearing.  Here are my highlights and observations:

Reasserting Its Relevance – In the past few weeks, the Senate has been positioning itself to take a lead on CIR by announcing a four-pillared framework.  That announcement was quickly followed by the President the next day, emphasizing a legal path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.  Meanwhile, the House was quick to reiterate that it had not yet arrived upon any CIR framework and that such efforts were just beginning.  Comments from the House Members that they were nowhere near a “compromise” further highlighted the challenges of our bicameral system- that any CIR bill will have to be approved (by a majority vote) in both houses.

Avoiding a Repeat of History – The primary concern by all House Members was to draft a CIR bill that would avoid a revisit of this issue in another 25 years.  Members looked towards policies that have been implemented in Australia, Canada, and the U.K. to ultimately create a bill that would avoid incentivizing immigrants to bypass the legal immigration system.

Comprehensive or Piecemeal – Should Congress should pass legislation as part of a comprehensive package or in piecemeal?  The discussions raised by the witnesses involved the urgent need to pass a STEM bill and preferably a bill involving Start-Up visas.  While staving off the “brain drain” was indeed a priority for the U.S., House Members could still not agree when a STEM should be passed.

Full Citizenship or Limbo – Another hot button issue was the issue of what status to give to the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S.  If we lifted them out of the shadows of our community, they could contribute by paying (more) taxes and purchasing large ticket items (like houses and cars).  While the Senate may have arrived at a compromise to provide a path to citizenship, the House Members were clearly not ready to agree on what status to “give” these immigrants.  Moreover, this proverbial “line” may be a long one – taking years or even decades.

High-Skilled vs. Low-Skilled Workers – Some pointed out that advanced nations with successful immigration policies effectively admitted 60% or more immigrants based on high-skills whereas the U.S. paled (at 20%) in comparison.  The battle about skills waged on in Congress.  Some highlighted that even low-skilled workers were a priority if certain industries in our nation (e.g.: agriculture) were to survive.  Even if all farmers would switch to growing crops that required fewer low-skilled workers, the need for low-skilled workers still existed.  One House Member asked if we were being “naïve” to believe that low-skilled workers were not needed in our country?  The U.S. would subsequently face a trade imbalance from having to import all of our produce and other goods.  The need to implement a system to allow low-skilled workers to come to the U.S. to work, whether temporary or seasonally, sorely needed a second look.

High-Skilled vs. Family Immigration – Mayor Castro stressed that CIR need not be a zero-sum game when it comes to admitting immigrants based on high-skills or based on family relationships.  Families make our communities strong and enhance our economic, social and cultural well-being.  Some House Members coined family migration as “chain migration”- a means for the door to be continually revolving for immigrants.  Others argued that perhaps we should eliminate certain family categories altogether rather than trying to manage our visas by backlogs.  Still, other witnesses and House Members defended the value of family immigration, pointing out some of the most successful businesses were created by the descendants of family-based immigrants (and not high-skilled immigrants).

Enforcement for Authorized Workers – Most everyone agreed that CIR needed a mechanism to ensure the workforce was legal.  Whether to advance E-Verify as a mandatory requirement or not, the House needed to consider the mass burden that would have not only on employers (charging them with the responsibility of being document examiners), but on government resources to ensure there was enough staff members to process all the queries.  The testimonials also raised the Achilles Heel of E-Verify, which is the rampant use of valid documents as a result of identity theft.  The idea of a national biometric system was raised again but the caution from witnesses was that mandatory E-Verify would never be successful if Congress ignored the 11 million undocumented individuals in this country.

Border and Interior Enforcement – Enhancing our nation’s ability to screen, track, and remove visa overstays was needed to address enforcement of the interior.  To this end, how should a CIR bill approach this topic?  Would technology be the answer?  The same concerns were raised about border enforcement.  Though, the House Members could not agree on whether this Administration had secured the border too much or not enough.

Clearly, the House (and Senate) has a gargantuan task ahead.  CIR will not be an easy road but there were many good points raised that should be considered.  The hearing was a success to the extent that it brought many of these issues to light so the Committee can consider them when drafting its version of a CIR bill.

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