Thursday, July 11, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Adopting a comprehensive approach was key to solving the immigration puzzle in the Senate, but in the House, Republicans are going piece by piece.
They have drafted, or are drafting, separate bills on border security, high-skilled and low-skilled visa allocation, employer verification, guest workers, and a pathway to legal status for Dreamers.
But there’s a piece missing: The House has thus far ignored the question of what to do with the 11 million immigrants already in the United States illegally.
“My question is, who’s doing the earned status piece … for the 11 million? And it hasn’t been answered yet,” Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, a member of the House Judiciary committee, said in an interview this week. “I’m going to spend this week finding out who’s bringing a bill, and when are we bringing it. Because I feel like you have to have the discussion on both sides of the Capitol to do the issue justice.”
In a sense, it is hardly surprising that a pathway to legal status for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally would be the elusive item in the House’s roster of pending immigration bills.
Though the 2012 election results shocked many Republicans into adopting a more open-arms approach to immigration, that isn’t the governing rule in the House, where many Republicans are safely nestled in districts where the immigration vote really isn’t a decisive factor.
“There are 23 districts in the country where you have a Republican in a competitive district who also can be persuaded to vote for an immigration bill based on realities on the ground,” Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Wednesday, explaining that Nevada Republican Rep. Joe Heck was one of those 23.
That leaves 211 Republicans in safer seats — including Amodei — for whom an immigration vote won’t bring direct heat from the Democrats.
Against that backdrop, leaders in the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees proceeded with impunity this spring to debate and pass a series of issue-specific immigration bills that prioritize enforcement and regulation over finding a pathway to legal status for immigrants already here illegally.
There are now five immigration bills in the House that have been cleared by committee and could, at any time, be scheduled for debates and votes in the full House.
1. Border Security
In May, the House Homeland Security Committee approved the Border Security Results Act, which as the title suggests, focuses acutely on border security. It requires the Department of Homeland Security to develop “metrics to measure border security progress,” and then develop “a national strategy and implementation plan to gain operational control of the entire Southwest border, defined as apprehending 90 percent of illegal border crossers.”
In substance, the border security roll-out could end up looking a lot like the expanded border security measures under the Senate’s comprehensive plan, which called for 700 miles of fencing and an extra 20,000 Customs and Border Patrol troops along the U.S.-Mexico border — more than any Republicans in the Senate were asking for.
But in structure, it is more akin to the crucial, and ultimately deal-breaking component of the Senate Republicans’ border security proposals: That success should be proven by a to-be-determined measure of effective security, separate from simply achieving physical benchmarks outlined in the bill.
2. State Immigration Laws
The most ambitious of the set is the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act, which seems to take on both the Supreme Court’s and Obama administration’s decisions about whether states or the federal government get to call the shots on immigration policy.
The SAFE Act, passed by the Judiciary Committee, would allow states to determine their own immigration laws, so long as they didn’t fly in the face of federal laws. The bill would also undo the administration’s decision to prioritize criminals for deportation orders above immigrants whose only crime is their illegal entry.
That would have the effect of undoing stayed deportation orders, such as that recently awarded Las Vegas resident Sharon Courtney, and upending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, through which countless young Nevada adults who were brought to the country as children have been able to obtain temporary work permits and legal status.
3. Agricultural workers
The House Judiciary Committee also approved a bill regulating the distribution of temporary visas for agricultural workers, with an approach less friendly to the immigrants than the Senate’s version. While both bills seek to make the application process for agricultural guest worker visas more user-friendly for farmers, the Senate’s bill includes extra protections for the workers and outlines a path for those workers to gain permanent legal status, and eventually citizenship if they seek it. The House’s version dispenses with those additional provisions.
4. Verification of work eligibility
The House is also slightly more strict when it comes to implementing a worker verification system. Under the Legal Workforce Act, passed by the Judiciary Committee, employers would have two years to start using E-Verify for all hires. In the Senate bill, that timeline only applies to companies with 5,000 or more employees. Those with 500 or more employees would have three years, smaller companies get four years, and Indian tribal employers get five years. The federal government and federal contractors must implement E-Verify for all hires immediately — but this is not a statutory change, as the federal government and contractors are already required to use the system.
5. High-skilled and temporary immigrants
The House did not deviate too far from the Senate’s plan in its approach to high-skilled workers. The Senate’s version raises the 65,000 cap on H-1B visas, reserved for highly skilled temporary laborers, to 110,000 per year, with the possibility of it rising to 180,000 per year. The House raises the cap to 155,000.
The Senate bill also tagged 25,000 such visas for immigrants with higher degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematical fields. The House went a step further, reserving 55,000 permanent green cards for immigrants who hold doctorates in STEM fields.
Both houses of Congress also green-lighted the creation of a new class of visa for entrepreneurs, capped at 10,000 per year.
Beyond the five bills passed by House committees, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, is drafting a bill to address the quotas for unskilled temporary worker visas, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is expected to come up with legislation addressing the fate of the Dreamers, according to Amodei.
In February, Cantor said he believed Dreamers — young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, and have completed either some college or military service — should have a pathway to citizenship.
But there is no similar clarion call for all other undocumented immigrants — and no consensus as to whether the House wants citizenship for those immigrants at all.
On Wednesday, Labrador told MSNBC that he supported a pathway to legal status — but not citizenship.
Meanwhile, lawmakers like Amodei say citizenship is the more sensible solution.
“I don’t know what the definition of amnesty is, but listen, if you have to go through and do all these things that are tougher and longer than somebody who came here legally, and you’ve gotta succeed in those, that’s earned status, that’s not amnesty,” Amodei said. “I assume that we will be having that discussion in the House.”