The holidays are over, we’ve entered a new year (the Year of the Horse commences on January 31st), struggled through the brisk Polar Vortex, and now moving our gaze to the year ahead. Regrettably, immigration reform failed to pass Congress but as they say, hope springs eternal, and many believe that 2014 will be the year for sorely needed reform, finally.
To recap, the U.S. Senate passed its version of comprehensive immigration reform on June 27, 2013 with Republicans and Democrats working together to see it through. The U.S. House of Representatives was another matter and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) promised that comprehensive immigration reform legislation would not see the light of day in his House. He ventured instead that strategic, piecemeal legislation would have a greater chance of success and doubted that would happen even in 2013. True to his words, Speaker Boehner did not push an immigration agenda in 2013, much to the dismay of many reform proponents.
This year appears to be different, however, and Speaker Boehner seems to be signaling that immigration reform legislation needs to pass through the House, especially in light of some of his recent actions. He’s emphasized again that comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely, promising instead, smaller, strategic bills addressing key aspects of our immigration laws. Not long ago, he added Rebecca Tallent, former immigration advisor to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Director of Immigration Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, to his staff and called out certain House members and groups for their obstructionism, accusing them of lacking credibility any longer.
So the stage seems set for immigration reform with President Obama and Senate leadership signaling their acquiescence to Speaker Boehner’s quest for piecemeal legislation, reflecting more of a desire to get something done rather than a belief his approach is better suited to the country’s needs at this point in our history. What are we likely to see with the House’s approach? Speculation runs wild but certain key provisions seem likely:
• Increased numbers of high-tech visas
• Allow immigrants entering the United States as children without authorization to obtain citizenship (the so-called Dreamers);
• Some form of a legalization program for agricultural workers
• Changes in border security
• Changes in interior enforcement And, what about the elephant in the room? That is, those individuals without status estimated to be about 11 million in number who are here working, paying taxes, starting businesses, and contributing to their communities. For the most part, the Republican House majority has been silent with a few members expressing interest in any effort at immigration reform. Bear in mind that we are in an election year and 2016 looms on the horizon, making immigration a key consideration in political strategizing by both major parties. The Democrats have, for the most part, marked out their plan with the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill passed last year. House Republicans plan on meeting in late January to formulate the coming year’s legislative agenda and no doubt immigration reform will comprise a good part of those discussions.
The House will likely tackle immigration reform this year and it’s just a matter of how it will approach the issue. It’s ill-conceived to ignore, however, the issue of 11 million individuals currently living in the shadows. On national security grounds alone, it would seem important to know about all people residing in the country.
Even more importantly, it seems imperative that as Congress tackles immigration this year, it takes the time to have a serious discussion about immigration in the United States. That means, why immigration is important, the country’s changing composition and growing heterogeneity, and provision for inclusion of immigrants into our social, cultural, and political fabric. Why is immigration important? That’s a key question which Congress cannot avoid as it gears up for a, hopefully, productive legislative session in 2014. Stay tuned!
R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has been practicing immigration law exclusively for 25 years with an emphasis on political asylum, family immigration, naturalization, removal defense, and appeals as well as H-1B and religious worker visas.