Immigration reform threatened in the House

This week, immigration reform advocates face some of their biggest hurdles ever as the 435 members of the House of Representatives become the focus of the legislative action on immigration reform.

The right wing, in the wake of Senate passage of a bi-partisan bill, is pushing to kill immigration reform in the House – not by voting down the Senate bill but by ignoring that bill and instead introducing a variety of piecemeal measures. These measures are primarily designed to turn the clock back on reform with harsh border-control schemes and to avoid creation of a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented now in the country.

The House has a 234 to 201 vote Republican majority even though, in the 2012 general elections, 1,403,602 more people voted for Democratic House candidates than for Republican ones.

The disparity is due to the gerrymandering of congressional district boundaries by Republican-controlled state legislatures. This is important because public opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of the people in the United States want a solution in which undocumented immigrants have a chance to get legal status and eventually citizenship.

The Speaker of the House, John Boehner of Ohio, and the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, have said that they will not allow consideration of the bill passed last month in the Senate, in spite of the fact that its managers packed it with so many enticements to attract Republican votes that it has created acrimony within the immigrants’ rights movement.

A bipartisan House “group of seven” is working on its own comprehensive bill, but Boehner says that he will not let any legislation advance to a vote in the House unless the majority of Republicans in the House supports it. This is meant to prevent anything from moving forward on the basis of joint support by a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans.

The Republicans are actually in three camps. There is one big group that opposes immigration reform of any type. These are the tea partiers or others who represent the gerrymandered districts where minority and labor union constituencies are very small. They live in fear of primary challenges from the right and their first instinct is to re-elect themselves no matter the cost to the country.

A second group, people like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, for example, want desperately to pass something so they can get the immigration reform issue behind them. These either have more substantial immigrant communities in their districts or they are people who, for a variety of reasons, realize that the long-term interests of the GOP require at least the appearance of backing immigration reform. A third group of Republicans is in the middle of these two groups and, like Boehner, appear to swing back and forth.

The result of all of this is that Republicans are advancing a series of bills that do not include a path to citzenship and that, if passed, would significantly increase repression on the border and within the country.

The SAFE Act, HR 2278, would oblige local and state police to cooperate with immigration enforcement efforts despite the wishes of state governments. It would criminalize the mere fact of being in the country without authorization, and would make it a criminal offense for anybody to provide housing or transportation to an undocumented immigrant. It would allow exclusion of many refugees or asylum seekers by wrongly classifying them as supporting terrorism. Homeland Security could deport people on mere suspicion of gang membership.

The SAFE Act greatly resembles the notorious Arizona Senate Bill 1070, and also the Sensenbrenner Bill of 2005, HR 4437, whose passage in the House stimulated the massive immigrants’ rights demonstrations in many US cities the following year.

The Border Security Results Act, HR 1417 would require that the federal Department of Homeland Security report on progress on the project of “90 percent control” of the U.S. international borders, and mandate a huge new investment in technological measures to keep unauthorized people from crossing into the United States. Like the Corker-Hoeven amendment in the Senate bill, this would be a bonanza for government contractors, and would not solve the “problem” of labor based immigration, which would go on but with more danger to the immigrants.

The Agricultural Guest Worker Act, HR 1773, would create a new guest worker program in agriculture, H-2C, replacing the current H-2A program. Unlike the language of the Senate bill, there are not even token protections for the guest workers, and they would have no way of changing their H-2C visas into green cards. They could not bring their families over, could not have access to taxpayer funded services, and who would have to deposit 10 percent of their pay with the US government. When they are abused by their employers, they could not be represented by federally funded legal aid programs.

The SKILLS VISAS Act, HR 2131, would reduce the number of permanent resident visas allotted on the basis of family unity and replace them with visas allotted on the basis of the needs of U.S. industry for high skilled workers. People already awaiting visas on the basis of family unity will see their applications denied. This will stimulate efforts of people in other countries to enter the United States “without inspection” so that they can be with their families.

The Legal Workforce Act, HR 1772 will mandate that all employers use the E-Verify system to check up on the Social Security Numbers of all employees within two years. This expansion of E-Verify will cause many people, even U.S. citizens born here, to be denied employment or to lose the jobs they already have, because of errors. And it will simply drive undocumented workers further underground, working for cash under the table at subminimum wage levels and in horrible conditions.

None of this is balanced by anything to give any kind of a break to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Nor does it do anything to deal with the real reasons that people come here without authorization: The very high and increasing levels of poverty and underemployment in poorer countries caused by U.S. trade and financial policies, and the desire to rejoin relatives living here.

It is likely that if they are passed, no break will be offered to the undocumented by House legislation. The scenario in the House-Senate conference committee will be one of “reconciling” the already passed Senate bill with one or more of these measures. This could lead to the complete failure of immigration reform legislation in the 113th Congress.

Immigrants’ rights organizations and their labor allies are organizing a major push to pressure selected Republican House members to support, rather, a comprehensive approach which gives relief to the undocumented.

Photo: GOP bills in the house focus on stepping up repressive measures along the U.S. border with Mexico and on criminalizing the undocumented. Matt York/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.