New Immigration Bill Debuts, Activists Express Cautious Optimism
Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Jeff Flake ended months of hyped speculation when they debuted their comprehensive immigration reform bill. The two had been working with Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy on a bill to kick off debate on the supersensitive issue this year. Negotiations fell apart in the Senate, however, when Republicans not included in the dealsuch as ranking Judiciary Committee member Sen. Arlen Spectertook their gripes to the White House. That left the House, unexpectedly, to take the first steps forward on reform.
The bill largely treads familiar territory for the Flake-Gutierrez-Kennedy-McCain coalition (they've sponsored bills together before): It allows the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants in the country to eventually legalize their status after paying fees and undergoing a background check. It also creates a biometric electronic verification system for employers to check employees' work status, and creates a "future flow" patha guest-worker program that could initially take in 400,000 low-skilled workers a year, a cap that could be adjusted upwards depending upon market conditions.
The Gutierrez-Flake bill, however, also takes some new innovative steps to attract conservatives. About half the bill is taken up by border security measures; the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security must certify that border- and interior-enforcement efforts have occurred before the guest-worker program can begin. The measure also substantially increases the penalties on immigrants who commit crimes and includes an innovative approach toward "touchback"the conservative idea that illegal immigrants in the country now should have to leave America and only then apply to return. In the Gutierrez-Flake measure, the head of household for each illegal immigrant family must leave the country within six years of registering with the government to fill out paperwork. People from far-flung countries like Guatemala or China will have the option to go to Canada or Mexico instead of returning all the way home.
Immigrant advocates immediately expressed optimism about the proposal, but they fell short of endorsing it. "We haven't seen all the language in [this bill]," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "But we're pleased with what we've seen so far." The measure, he noted, is 600-plus pages long.
Other groups, including the Service Employees International Union, the union group backing a guest-worker program, expressed some caution on the touchback provision. "In order for this to work, it needs to be practical," says Eliseo Medina, a vice president with SEIU. "There are a lot of details we just don't know yet." Others, like John Gay, vice president of the National Restaurant Association and a longtime figure in the immigration rights community, emphasized that the bill "seems to have the key elements we've focused the most on"a guest-worker program, a path to legal status, and an electronic worker verification system.
Kennedy immediately embraced the bill, which contained some of his legislative efforts, including a provision he's championed for years that would allow the children of illegal immigrants who graduate from American high schools to get in-state tuition at U.S. universities. He said he was hopeful a Senate bill would soon be introduced. Right now, it's estimated that the Senate Judiciary Committee could begin debate instead using a Specter-sponsored measure that passed through the committee last year. Kennedy said the important thing is to have "a tough but fair bill that strikes the right balance between protecting our security, strengthening our economy, and enacting laws that uphold our humanity."
The White House and Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff are currently meeting with senators almost daily to try to hammer out some sort of compromised starting point and build support for immigration reform.