Senate Immigration Bill, a harmful compromise that’s about to get worse

3 Sep

us-immigration-protest-1Last week our nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, presenting us with an opportunity to take stock of the future “jobs and freedom” of undocumented individuals. The greatest hope for a dramatically different system of immigration came when the Senate voted 68-32 in favor of the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” It was hoped that this solid majority was would pressure House Republicans to take up the bill, or to pass a similar comprehensive reform bill that then could be taken to conference with the Senate bill. The problem is that in recruiting Republican (and some conservative Dem) votes, the Senate bill is a dangerous way forward that will exacerbate the harmful and inequitable aspects of the current immigration system. While there are many positive elements in the bill, there were too many concessions that have ultimately poisoned the effort.

Below we outline the major health implications, both the provisions that are positive (¡Bien hecho!) and the provisions that are harmful and should be deleted (¡Qué pena!).

¡Bien hecho!  Finally, there may be a pathway to citizenship. This is major. Many undocumented immigrants living in US will have the opportunity to gain a full set of rights as citizens. Immigrants who are allowed on the path to citizenship will have increased job opportunities, be less likely to be exploited in the work environment, have increased educational and economic opportunities, and be able to vote.

¡Que pena!  However, it’s too long of a pathway and it would not be an easy one. The Senate bill requires up to 15 years for undocumented immigrants to become citizens. That is 15 more years of diminished rights, including being barred from health care reform and other public benefits.  Individuals who are unemployed for more than 60 days will lose legal status.  Not to mention many individuals who will be ineligible to even begin this path.  Ultimately, around 4 million people, out of 11.5 million, will not ever enter or finish this path.

¡Que pena!  To entice the support of a handful of conservative votes, Democratic leaders added a boatload to the already bloated border spending. This $40 billion breaks down into 20,000 more agents (each armed with a lot of new and dangerous equipment); 700 miles of double-layered fencing, estimated to cost between $400,000 and $15 million per mile; at least $4.5 billion for surveillance technology in an effort to watch 100 percent of the southern border at all times, including drones at $18 million a pop and $3,000 and hour to fly; and millions more in contracts to IT companies to establish the national E-Verify system.  This is at a time when the sequester has slashed health and education programs indiscriminately. Any concern about this price tag was conspicuously absent from those who, traditionally, are eager to bring attention to the “cost” of immigration.  Plus, many corporations lobbied hard for extra security dollars that will ultimately please their shareholders.

¡Bien hecho!  Allows an expedited pathway to citizenship and legal permanent residence for DREAMers, some agricultural workers, and some individuals will temporary status.

¡Que pena!  However, these expedited pathways are based on a value judgement about the worth and deservingness of different classes of immigrants. Economic policies that have been instituted by the US (NAFTA is a biggee) are a major reason for the influx of immigrants.  Instead of acknowledging its own role in immigration, the Senate instead paternalistically dispenses rights and benefits based on how “useful” or “sympathetic” different immigrant groups are.

For more info on the Senate Bill, check out the Summary & Analysis from National Immigration Law Center.

Intransigent House Republicans

Any compromise with the House is going to introduce even more repressive measures to punish undocumented immigrants and their families. In fact, even Grover Norquist, one of the nation’s most conservative leaders (usually eager to cut taxes for the rich and cut social programs for the poor), has stated that legislation hasn’t passed because opponents (meaning mostly Tea Partyish Republicans and their ilk) are “anti-people.” Anti-people leaders, who are overwhelmingly white men with no concept of their privilege, have made it clear that they are not willing to share the benefits of this country with migrants. If a compromise must be made with these conservatives, it will water down many of the good provisions in the Senate bill, gained at a high cost of the punitive enforcement measures.
Next week Congress will be back in session (with a full plate of legislative issues), so it remains to be seen how the House decides to act.  However, it’s clear from the bills that have stumbled through House committees earlier this summer that the House is not serious about a comprehensive reform package and would rather cherry-pick policies appealing to their conservative base.  Here’s a summary of some of those policies:

KIDS Act

In July, House Republican leadership announced this act to, supposedly, support undocumented youth brought to the United States as children. In actuality, they were probably just trying to support their own image. The act has been called DREAM Act Lite and the National Immigrant Law Center called it out for what it really is: “Certain House members want to create a perception that House leaders are interested in DREAMers’ contributions to our country. Unfortunately, the House’s actions over the past few months speak louder than their words.”

SAFE Act

On June 18, 2013, the Judiciary Committee approved this bill by a vote of 20-15. This enforcement-only bill would increase the reach of the deportation dragnet by further integrating local law enforcement with Federal immigration enforcement. This bill would essentially mandate more enforcement and tie the hands of Federal, state, and local authorities to practice discretion over detaining and deporting individuals.  It would significantly expand enforcement policies and activities at the state and local level by allowing state and local governments to create their own immigration enforcement laws (remember Arizona’s SB 1070?) and expanding their immigration enforcement abilities – this is at the same time that it would restrict states and localities from noncompliance with involvement with ICE.  It would also restrict the Federal government from implementing the DACA policy and increase its responsibility to take custody of undocumented individuals apprehended by local jurisdictions.  It would also increase data collection and monitoring of undocumented individuals, including collection of information into the the National Crime Information Center database, while expanding criminal definitions of illegal entry and overstay of visas, gang membership and DUI driving.  Finally, it would subject individuals who transport or “harbor” a person with the knowledge that the person is undocumented to severe criminal penalties under a so-called “alien smuggling” provision.

Border Security Results Act

This bill would establish metrics for “security” – essentially trying to measure and track the level of border enforcement – and include the US-Canada border in these efforts under the pretense of preventing terrorism.  It would require that the metrics demonstrate that the Department of Homeland Security achieve 100% real-time surveillance of the borders and a 90% “effectiveness rate” (i.e. stopping unauthorized entries).  This bill has been touted as a more moderate and reasonable approach.  While it sounds a lot better than the SAFE Act, bill authors, Candice Miller (R-MI) and Mike McCaul (R-Texas) are using the influx of border enforcement funding to justify “accountability” for the success of these efforts.  More funding, they argue, requires proof of “success.”  This circular logic uses the increased funding to justify further militarization.  The bill passed the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security and the House Committee on Homeland Security unanimously.  Yes, that means it received bipartisan support.

As you can see, these are all enforcement and no path to citizenship.

When it comes to negotiations, sometimes the best move is no move at all. Even if the House were to pass a comprehensive reform bill, then it will be even worse, with more elements that blame immigrants and create toxic social environments. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act can only get worse. For these reasons, we should say no to reform as it currently stands.

People of color strongly support a true path to citizenship, what we like to call healthy immigration reform.  People of color are growing in number. There will be a price to pay for this hate-legislation, now is not the time to settle for a bad deal.

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