Congress wrestles with immigration reform
Washington D.C. Correspondent
WASHINGTON ” This legislative session, the Colorado congressional delegation is working with the rest of Congress to decide the fate of several bills that typify the extreme range of ideas for dealing with the immigrants flowing into the United States every year. All would drastically change the nature of immigration in a country that was founded on it.
Congress’ varying degrees of political responses to immigration ” close the border, open the border, give illegal immigrants amnesty, send them all home ” are reflected among the Colorado delegates.
“I think Colorado is sort of a microcosm of the country because our senators and representatives are on both ends of the political spectrum,” said Jeff Joseph, immigration attorney with Joseph Law Firm in Denver.
Most of the House and Senate members agree that some sort of border control and guest worker program are necessary. The issue becomes complicated, however, when considering the order in which these things should be implemented, to what extent and in what manner.
The first major piece of legislation, called the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act, emphasizes border security. Proposed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the measure would authorize hiring 10,000 border patrol agents and 1,250 new customs and border protection officers at specific points of entry. It also would provide $5 billion for technology ” like cameras and sensors ” to help prevent illegal border crossing.
“There are not many countries that are as loose about their borders as the United States is, and I don’t think in this 9/11 era we can afford to do that,” said Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo. “We don’t want to say we’re anti-immigrant and we’re going to shut everything down forever and all that, but we do want to know who’s here.”
Another proposal, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, focuses some on border control, but emphasizes a new temporary visa that would allow immigrants to work in the United States for up to three years, after which time the visa can be renewed once. It is intended to funnel immigrants to jobs Americans don’t want.
Unlike the current system, which ties a worker’s visa to a specific employer, foreign workers would be able to change jobs with ease while working toward permanent residency under the measure, which was proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., emphasized the importance of documenting immigrants so that they can move back and forth across the border to do seasonal work in industries like skiing and agriculture ” both big contributors to Colorado’s economy.
“(The legislation) has got to be something that addresses the needs of not only agriculture and the ski industry, but any labor needs that need to be met in this country,” Salazar said. “There are many producers who just can’t find a labor force in this country, especially for the wages that they pay.”
The McCain-Kennedy bill has come under fire, however, for extending temporary visa registration rights to illegal immigrants already in the country. Critics say it harkens back to the 1986 immigration legislation that provided full amnesty.
“I am convinced that the McCain-Kennedy bill is an amnesty,” said former Colorado governor Richard Lamm, who had supported the 1986 legislation. He criticized the McCain-Kennedy proposal for having the same flaw as the 1986 law, which he said was a failure because the lack of strict employer sanctions meant illegal workers continued to be hired, eliminating the incentive to apply for amnesty.
“Amnesty is a big billboard, a flashing billboard, to the rest of the world that we don’t really mean our immigration law,” Lamm said.
Others argue that the process would be grueling enough to avoid the label of “forgiveness.”
“People have to come forward, they have to pay a big fine and application fees, they have to go through background checks, pay all of the back taxes that are owed if they were working off the books and prove they’ve been learning English,” said Michele Waslin, director of Immigration Policy Research at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic-American advocacy group in Washington. “I don’t think that when you have to do all that, you can consider that an amnesty.”
The Cornyn-Kyl bill is also being castigated for its approach to illegal immigrants already in the country. The legislation, which does not offer a route to citizenship, would ask them to come forward voluntarily to be deported so that they could re-enter the country through a legal process.
“It would say to those 11 million undocumented immigrants that you have to come forward and register, pay thousands of dollars of fines so that you can be deported to your home country with no guarantee of ever coming back again,” Waslin said. “We don’t think that’s feasible.”
Any sort of drastic and quick deportation measures also would have a serious effect on the U.S. economy, said Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
“The idea that we could somehow deport eight to 10 million people overnight or even over a six- to-12-month period of time just doesn’t strike many folks as realistic, both in manpower needs, the administrative backup that would be necessitated and, frankly, the impact it would have on our economic system,” Udall said.
Supporters of the Cornyn-Kyl bill, however, praise it for the stricter sanctions it would place on employers, something Hefley said is imperative to deterring illegal immigration.
Similar measures are proposed in a third bill, the Real Guest Act. Introduced by Rep. Thomas Tancredo, this legislation aims to secure the border, enforce employment laws and establish a guest worker program. It is the only bill to call for the use of military force on the border, in addition to preventing children born to illegal immigrants from attaining U.S. citizenship.
Others say the legislation is too extreme and unrealistic.
“(Tancredo) espouses an outdated approach,” said Vanessa Cardenas, policy and communications associate for the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group. “He thinks that by throwing men and money at the problem he’s going to fix the system … not realizing that a lot of these families have put down roots in the country … and they’re not just going to pick up and go.”
Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., said she supports legislation that would allow workers to come into the country for agricultural jobs, but also supports promoting democracy around the world as a way to slow the rate of immigration into the United States.
“It’s really quite heartbreaking to see people so desperate to get a job and provide for their family that they’re willing to risk their life,” Musgrave said. “It’s a desperateness that many of us cannot identify with.”
Tancredo said the ideal, but unrealistic solution, would be to “have a world in which the economy of each country were such that people were working and able to make a life. That would end most illegal immigration, because it’s economically driven.”
Some immigration organizations and political scientists would like to see solutions outside the scope of the current proposed legislation. Stephen Mumme, professor of political science at Colorado State University, said the United States must have a long-term strategy for building up the Mexican economy, for example.
William Gheen, president of a national group that works to stop illegal immigration ” Americans for Legal Immigration ” said the government should enforce existing laws regarding border control, employer sanctions, social services and deportation before new ones are put into effect.
Regardless of the approach, Colorado’s congressional delegates agree that immigration policy is an increasingly urgent issue that must be addressed.
In the midst of all the proposals on immigration reform, last fall McCain and Cornyn announced they would work toward a staggered approach to their bills in the New Year. Along with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, the senators outlined a schedule that starts with border enforcement and then addresses a guest-worker program.
But there appeared to be some consensus that one bill can’t address all the issues, including what to do about the estimated 11 million people already here illegally.
“We all agree that comprehensive immigration reform is the way to go,” Cornyn said at an October press conference. “You can’t fix a piece of this and claim victory.”
In the meantime, a coalition of conservative Republicans in Colorado, frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress on the issue, has begun pushing another agenda. Rep. Dave Schultheis of Colorado Springs calls guest-worker programs “worthless” unless they’re extremely rigid. And his group, the Republican Study Committee of Colorado, is behind a proposition on next year’s ballot to limit services to illegal immigrants.
“We want to put out the message that people here illegally are not welcome in Colorado,” Schultheis said, alluding to a similar measure that passed in Arizona (Proposition 200). “The word gets out instantly, and they start going to other states.”
For Schultheis and his group, the bottom line is the rule of law.
“There is no other side to the issue ” you obey the law or not,” he said. “If you’re not obeying, you should get out.”
Alex Miller contributed to this report.
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