Category: Archive

Immigration reform rumbles to life in Congress again

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Sen. Edward Kennedy mentioned it during remarks to the press last week after his meeting with Ireland’s foreign minister, Brian Cowen.
Kennedy is putting together a bill that will address the presence in the U.S. of millions of illegal and undocumented immigrants.
“Today, an estimated 8 million people live in the U.S. without legal documents. Many of them are Irish. We need to enact legislation that will create a fair, uniform set of procedures to legalize qualified immigrants. Long-time, hard-working residents should be provided the opportunity to become permanent members of our community,” Kennedy said after the Cowen meeting.
“We must also revise the outdated family and employment-based visa categories. We need an immigrant visa system that reunites families in a timely and humane manner and matches workers with employers in a way that makes sense for both. Many obstacles that have separated immigrant families for many years, and in some cases, split them apart, must be eliminated.
“Congress must reform our immigration policies so they address our economic reality and reflect our core values of family unity, economic opportunity, and fundamental fairness.”
Kennedy is a master of “Hillspeak.” He will use the word reform quickly enough. Amnesty is a word he would tend to avoid. Phrases dealing with family and economic opportunity are no surprise. And the bill now being put together in Kennedy’s office will probably include references to enhanced national security.
Kennedy was a partner with Sen. Tom Daschle in a bill introduced last year that was aimed at reviving 245i, the immigration provision that once allowed eligible undocumented to obtain legal status without having to first leave the U.S. thus automatically facing three or ten year bars from the country. That bill died with the outgoing 107th Congress. So too did a House bill from Richard Gephardt called the Earned Legalization and Family Unification Act of 2002. But in a clear sign that momentum has been achieved in the pro-immigration corners of the Capitol, a 2003 bill by the same name has been placed before the House by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas.
Other reform bills have been emerging. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced the “Unity, Security, Accountability and Family Act,” also called “The USA Family Act,” a measure that would grant legal permanent residence to immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for five or more years.
The Gutierrez bill, which presently has 16 co-sponsors and is before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, also proposes to revoke those 3 and 10 years bars from the U.S. that currently prevent many would-be immigrants, Irish among them, from reentering the country and attempting to secure legal permanent residence.
The bill would additionally revoke aspects of current law that place immigrants at risk of deportation for having committed “minor, non-violent offenses in the past.”
As reform bills go these days, this one is as about as comprehensive as they come. Much of the argument behind it turns on the need for immigrant workers as the nation’s population ages. But national security is also invoked.
In a press statement, Gutierrez said his act “would better protect our homeland by creating an improved system of accountability that would save the federal government billions of dollars each year in enforcement programs.”
There is the beginning of a convergence here. Kennedy is, of course, Irish American. Gutierrez is Hispanic and Jackson Lee African American. They are all, however, Democrats and in the minority in both houses of Congress.
So, critical to any reform process is the attitude of Republican legislators. Kennedy is long used to working with colleagues from across the aisle and the first thing he will be doing for his bill is finding a GOP co-author.
But opposition to any comprehensive reform is also to be found in the GOP ranks. One of the most vociferous critics of pro-immigration reform is Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
Tancredo chairs a congressional grouping called the Immigration Reform Caucus. Reform, from this corner of the Capitol, means tighter immigration controls, not just at the borders, but within the United States.
According to its own website, the caucus, during the 108th Congress, will
“highlight the continuing growth in illegal immigration through an aggressive press and member education operation.”
The group is also seeking to “improve interior enforcement and border control.”
The caucus also states that it will seek “to ensure that any proposed guest worker program addresses the following: incentives for workers to stay home upon completion of their contract; the wisdom of granting further amnesties; the program’s effect on the U.S. economy, and enforcement of employer sanctions.”
While the group does back the idea of a guest worker program (the Walsh Visa program comes to mind), it makes its opposition to any amnesty for even guest workers who overstay more than clear.
The caucus also states that it “will also push for legislation to deny American citizenship to the American-born children of illegal aliens” and “will focus on the explosive growth of legal immigration.”
It further aims to “promote legislation to reduce the overall number of immigrants allowed into the country each year by limiting some of the admission categories.”
The caucus is also firmly opposed to 245i, dubbing it a “mini-amnesty.”
This is hardly in lockstep with what Ted Kennedy is thinking.
Tancredo’s most withering stare is, it must be said, aimed primarily at Mexico and not little old Ireland. He is no lone wolf, however. The caucus currently has 65 members of the House of Representatives on its rolls, so it is a formidable grouping. Three of them are Democrats, so it’s not a one-party faction. One of its listed members is Rep. Henry Hyde, the GOP chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
So all the ingredients are present for what could be a vigorous, no-holds-barred debate on the direction of immigration reform. It would appear highly unlikely that there will emerge any special deal for the Irish as was the case with the Donnelly and Morrison visas.
Still, the fate of millions who want to call America home looks as if it will be decided by Congress in the current session. Among them will be an unknown number of Irish, certainly thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands.

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