New immigration bill introduced

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On March 23, Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced a new comprehensive immigration bill, the “Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy” (STRIVE) Act, HR 1645. The bill has 29 initial co-sponsors, including both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

The general approach is similar to that of last session’s “Secure America” bill, also called the McCain-Kennedy Act, in that it trades off the legalization of the 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants against new and beefed-up immigration control measures, plus a guest-worker program, as a way of getting bipartisan consensus for passage.

The November elections brought Democratic majorities insufficient in themselves to override a presidential veto or to prevent a filibuster by Senate Republicans; hence the bipartisan approach.

Though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a number of organizations that support immigrant rights expressed guarded praise for the measure as a “good beginning,” others in the immigrant rights movement expressed worry that the concessions on the “security” concerns of the Republicans and on the guest-worker item went much too far.

Undocumented immigrants would, as under the McCain-Kennedy Act, have to stay in a provisional status for six years, pay $2,000 in fines and fees (from which children would be exempted), learn English, keep working and not have a criminal record in order to qualify for permanent residency. In addition, they would have to step outside the U.S. and then legally re-enter to apply for citizenship.

Persons who had committed serious crimes would not be allowed to participate, but this would be waived for mere immigration offenses. Some people under deportation orders could participate.

The sponsors suggest the law would increase the number of job-based and family-unity-based permanent resident visas so as to create enough green cards to absorb people transitioning from this provisional status to permanent residency. However, whether this would actually happen will require more detailed analysis of the numbers.

In any event, this program could not begin until the government “certified” the border as “secure,” which many consider an impossible condition.

The new guest-worker program, with an initial 400,000 slots, would be almost the same as under McCain-Kennedy, except that participants would be able to switch jobs, but only if the new job was also with an employer certified with the program. They could not stay unemployed for more than 60 days without being forced to leave the country. Their employers could petition for them to join the permanent resident stream, and after five years they could petition for this themselves, but the “sign-ups” are for three year stints, so they could only petition for themselves during their second stint.

New control mechanisms include heightened criminal penalties for future undocumented immigrants who evade orders to leave or present false information to get a job, for employers of undocumented workers and for immigrant smugglers. Employers would be forced, in stages first involving the largest enterprises, to participate in the highly flawed and much criticized system of computer checks of the Social Security numbers of job applicants. State and local police would be explicitly authorized to help with immigration enforcement work. Enforcement resources would be beefed up.

The new legislation incorporates the DREAM Act, which would permit undocumented immigrant students to get a college education, and the AGJobs Act, providing a legal basis for immigrant workers to do agricultural work.

Meanwhile in the Senate, the media are reporting that negotiations between the co-sponsors of McCain-Kennedy in the last session have broken down, and that Sen. Kennedy is going to introduce his own bill. Other legislation might also be introduced in both houses.

Many immigrant rights organizations are gearing up for more mass actions, including marches, protests and boycotts in order to try to push the congressional debate in a progressive direction.