The result is a rising expectation that the Senate will pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill by the spring, probably in March or April.
The House of Representatives will likely take longer to pass its own immigration measure — now being crafted by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat, and Rep. Jeff Flake, Republican — but would do so in time for an agreed Senate/House bill to go to President Bush’s desk for signing before year’s end.
In a front page story last week, the New York Times reported that Senators from both parties are planning on unveiling a bill in January with hopes for final passage after a two or three month period of deliberation and negotiation.
Not surprisingly, the main architects of the Senate measure look like being Senators Edward Kennedy — poised to become chairman of the Senate Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship Subcommittee — and Senator John McCain.
It was this Democratic/Republican duo that steered passage through the Senate of the so-called McCain/Kennedy reform bill last year.
The now anticipated revised version of McCain/Kennedy should look largely like its first incarnation, but possibly with one crucial difference.
According to the Times, aides to both senators are looking at a new bill that would not require undocumented and illegal immigrants to first leave the United States before being allowed begin the process of earning legal U.S. residence.
While the Times report did not make any specific reference to it, such a change would effectively mean resurrection for Section 245i, a lapsed immigration law provision that allowed illegals to apply for regular status while remaining within America’s borders.
245i was allowed to expire by Congress in 1998. There have been efforts to revive it in the intervening years, but none have been successful.
One such effort occurred in the fall of 2000 when Congress voted to annually allocate more skills-related visas. However, efforts to simultaneously restore 245i failed at the time in both the House and Senate.
Not entirely outdone, however, supporters tried again in 2002. The provision was written into a House proposal but was ultimately rejected by Sen. Kennedy and others on the grounds that the revised 245i proposal was restrictive, particularly in terms of the time that would have been allowed individuals to apply for relief.
Shortly after this thumbs down, however, then Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle introduced a bill, the United Families Act, 2002, that would have allowed immigrants to remain in the United States while waiting to become permanent residents.
This Senate version of 245i — which proposed allowing individuals more time to apply for legalization — was backed by Kennedy and others, including Senator Chris Dodd.
“As we work to respond to the security issues before us, we can’t lose sight of the other immigration issues that are still a priority,” Kennedy said at the time.
“This legislation extends section 245i, a vital provision of U.S. immigration law which allows individuals who already legally qualify for permanent residency to process their applications in the United States, without returning to their home countries,” he said.
245i has long been considered critical by advocates for the undocumented because, among other things, it allows people attempting to secure legalization to avoid the trap of being automatically barred from the U.S. should they leave the country.
Under current law, an undocumented person must return to his or her country of origin in order to seek legal status in the U.S.
However, if the period of undocumented residence in the U.S. has exceeded six months, the individual is automatically barred from the U.S. for three years. If the undocumented period exceeds a year, the ban lasts for 10 years.
Any bill passed by Congress that lacks 245i, or something along the same lines, would cut across these barring periods unless they themselves were shelved. There is little likelihood of that happening.
Assuming a bill containing 245i language is passed by the Senate in the spring — and there is enough bipartisan support to ensure such a development — the focus would then shift to the House, always a far less certain legislative chamber when it comes to the thorny matter of comprehensive immigration reform.
As has been reported elsewhere, the Times story suggested that passage of a House bill with earned legalization lines in it would be “particularly uncertain.”
Such uncertainty would not just be due to expected opposition in GOP ranks, but also on the now majority Democratic side of the 435-member House.
“The House Democrats are concerned about protecting newly elected moderate and conservative Democrats, some of whom had campaigned against legalizing illegal immigrants,” The Times report stated.
Despite this, reform backers, Irish included, are likely to look first, and with greatest hope, to the Senate measure.
Should it come up for a vote in March, this would coincide with the annual visit to Washington of the Irish prime minister.
During his visit last year, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern raised the issue of thousands of undocumented Irish during his shamrock bowl White House meeting with President Bush.
March has also been set side for a special effort by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. The group is planning to rally in Washington on the seventh of that month.
A significant difference between the reform effort in 2007 over last year’s version will be the absence of the kind of political pressure felt by Congress members in a midterm, or general election year.
That’s not to say that a looming 2008 will not be a factor. The Times report stated that there was indeed a political clock for legislators to consider.
And in this context it stated that some congressional aides and immigrant advocates were worried about the continued commitment of Senator McCain to the reform bandwagon – this because he will be a likely GOP presidential contender in 2008.
If McCain does balk, or does not support a bill that goes beyond just granting millions of non-immigrant temporary work visas, it would cause consternation in the reform camp, not least the Irish portion of it.
At an ILIR rally in the Bronx last April, McCain planted his flag firmly on the side of an earned legalization process.
McCain has also been a supporter of the basic premise behind 245i, but last week’s Times report cited “some advocates” who feared that the Arizona senator’s ambitions might lead to a shift in that stance so as to avoid alienating “moderate Republicans.”
While Ted Kennedy’s position on immigration reform is seen as fixed and unflinching, any hint or suggestion that McCain might wobble on the issue is certain to cause serious Irish jitters.
It is to be expected that suitably reassuring words to the effect that McCain remains “sound” on immigration reform will be sought before too many days in the new Congress have passed.