Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Congress’ First Step Toward Immigration Reform



This afternoon Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) reminded the American people what awaits in 2010: a much-needed national discussion on immigration reform. Joined by lawmakers from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Black Caucus, Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Progressive Caucus, Gutierrez introduced his long-awaited Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009. Or, CIR ASAP as the bill’s acronym fittingly spells out.

And while his legislation is unlikely to be the bill that ultimately passes, it puts pressure on Congress and the Obama administration to step up their efforts at finding a workable solution to one of the United States’ most challenging domestic issues. By introducing CIR ASAP now—before Congress leaves town for the holidays—Gutierrez is sending a message that “there is no excuse for inaction in the New Year.”

Of course, health care reform must first be voted on in the Senate, and if passed, reconciled with the House version before discussions shift to immigration reform. But when they do, all eyes will be on Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration.

Schumer is said to be working closely with Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and is expected to introduce an immigration reform bill in January. Leaders in both chambers expect action in February or March. But the House is likely to take its cues from the Senate on this one.

The details are still being worked out on the Schumer bill, but here’s what Gutierrez proposes: tougher border security; stepped-up employment verification; reduction of the visa backlog; earned legalization for undocumented immigrants; establishment of a commission to provide recommendations of future labor flow needs; and grants for community organizations that assist with naturalization. The most contentious issue—earned legalization for the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants—would be addressed by requiring those without legal status to register, pay a $500 fine, learn English, pass background checks, and meet other requirements. After that, each person would be eligible for a six-year visa and then a green card.

These provisions address what Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano—the President’s go-to person on moving forward immigration reform—said must be included in a compromise bill. Last week, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Napolitano called for a “system that deters illegal immigration, provides effective and enduring enforcement tools, protects workers from exploitation and retaliation and creates a tough but fair path to legalization for the millions of illegal immigrants.”

Yes, the undocumented immigrants broke the law by coming to the U.S. without papers or by staying in the country once a visa expired. But the U.S. cannot continue to allow for millions of people to live in the shadows as second-class citizens who fear speaking out when their basic rights may be threatened.

At a time of 10 percent unemployment—more than double the 4.6 percent average rate the last time immigration reform was attempted in 2006 and 2007— House Judiciary Committee member Lamar Smith (R-TX) echoes the thoughts of many skeptical of immigration reform: “When 15 million Americans are out of work, it’s hard to believe that anyone would give amnesty to 12 million illegal immigrants.”

But that’s exactly the point. The pundits and anti-immigrant zealots have miscast the debate. Immigrants, especially the undocumented in lower-skilled jobs, do the work that many of the native born will not do. In fact, studies show that immigration raised the average wage of the native-born worker by 1.1 percent during the 1990s, only negatively affecting the wages of native-born workers without a high-school diploma (a 1.2 percent decline).

Looking specifically at legalization, a Cato Institute study released in August found that “legalization of low-skilled immigrant workers would yield significant income gains for American workers and households.” Here’s something to chew on: without legalization, the estimated 8.3 million undocumented workers currently in the U.S. have no recourse to ask to be paid the minimum wage. This situation certainly affects low-skilled workers competing for some of these same jobs.

CIR ASAP has again put immigration reform front-and-center in the national spotlight. This is a nation founded by immigrants (my father actually came here as a child), and one that deserves a reasonable, balanced discussion on how to create an immigration system that will serve our country for generations to come. It’s time to put the rhetoric and scare tactics aside, and look for a balanced solution to the United States’ fractured immigration system.

*Jason Marczak is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He is senior editor of Americas Quarterly, managing editor of AmericasQuarterly.org and director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Marczak is deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as senior editor of Americas Quarterly and director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

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