What next for immigration reform legislation?

This coming week, immigration reform legislation is supposed to be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. It is not yet clear what its content will be or how many different bills will be introduced. What is clear is that the immigrant rights movement is facing the fight of its life.

On June 27 the Senate passed its bill, after adding on a draconian amendment introduced by Reps. Corker and Hoeven. Besides costing the taxpayers at least $36 billion to implement, the Corker-Hoeven amendment will have an extremely negative impact on the border region, which will be flooded with around 20,000 new border patrol agents and a lot of surveillance hardware. There will be an increase in harassment, racial profiling and deaths on the border, as people trying to cross will take greater and greater risks to get around the massive security.

What we know about the House so far is:

* There is little chance that the House will pass the Senate bill. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., are dead set against it, and control the mechanics. So whatever comes out of the House will be created by the House.

* A comprehensive bill will be presented by the bipartisan “gang of seven.” The basic structure will be similar to the Senate plan; the devil will be in the details.

* Several Republican representatives say they are going to present bills to solve the immigration problem piecemeal. These will be concentrated on new mechanisms of repression and new temporary guest worker programs, and probably will not offer citizenship or perhaps even legalization to the estimated 11 million undocumented. Congressman Goodlatte says he is open to offering citizenship to people who were brought to this country without papers when they were children, but will oppose it for other undocumented immigrants.

If there is a workable compromise in the House, and it gets bottled up in committee, there is a small possibility that it could be considered by the whole House anyway through the mechanism of a “petition to discharge.” To accomplish this, 218 members would have to support it.

After one or more bills are passed by the House during the summer, they and the Senate bill will be brought to a joint House-Senate conference committee created for the purpose. When the conference committee finishes its work of reconciling the bills, the combined version goes back to the House and Senate to be voted up or down, without changes. If either body fails to approve the bill, the bill dies. If both approve it, it goes to the president, who can sign it, veto it or let it die a natural death by doing neither.

So the big fight is now in the House, where the Republicans have a 234-201 majority. This means that no bill legalizing the undocumented is likely to pass unless all the Democrats vote for it and 33 Republicans are either won over or neutralized (so they vote “present” or don’t vote). The only way to accomplish this is by means of a massive grassroots mobilization of the immigrant rights movement and all its allies: labor, the African American community, everybody.

Most of the House Republicans are immune to any threat or pressure on this or other matters because their constituency districts’ demographics protect them: few Latinos, Asians, or African Americans, weak organized labor, lots of right-wing grassroots presence. So to impact the House, the movement will have to do an unprecedentedly effective job of education, organizing and mobilizing the base, focused on those districts whose Republican incumbents have something to fear.

The Senate bill as passed has some very negative elements, and there will have to be a fight to make sure that the House does not just duplicate or worsen these defects, and/or that they are removed in the conference committee:

* There is a need to make sure that legalization is offered to the largest number of undocumented immigrants possible. The Senate bill contains rules saying that people cannot complete the process if, over a 10-year obstacle course, they have criminal records, are unemployed more than 60 days or their income falls below 125 percent of the poverty level. Anybody who does not make it will find himself or herself facing even greater repression. Even the matter of a criminal record is a problem unless we believe that the U.S. criminal justice system is set up to produce justice, rather than convictions.

* The Corker-Hoeven amendment needs to be removed from the final legislation as dangerous and unjust and a monumental waste of the taxpayers’ money.

Whatever is passed will have a lot of negative elements anyway, which will be the target of the struggle beyond this congressional session. But there is a high price for doing nothing, or for the failure of any attempt to get legalization for the undocumented in this Congress.

If the legislative effort fails it means that the 11 million undocumented have no relief. Further, there will be no mechanism for people who have already been deported to come back legally.

And worst of all, the repressive elements of the various bills may well be passed and implemented without being balanced by a legalization program.

Photo: Blake Deppe/PW


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.