The comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed out of the Senate last month now faces an uncertain future in the GOP-led House.
Now, it’s more important than ever for immigration reform advocates to ramp up pressure for a bill that would help America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants find a pathway to citizenship, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said at a forum on the topic in Chicago on Monday.
“We may never get another chance,” the senator said at the discussion, sponsored by the Latino Policy Forum and the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The president supports it. We passed it in the Senate now, and we have to let (members of the House) know.”
Durbin said it would take strong community organizing at the district and state level to help sway reluctant House members to push through an immigration reform measure.
“What it all boils down to is there’s a big job ahead of us,” Durbin said. “We achieved quite a bit. We have more to go.”
By a 68-32 vote, the Senate passed the chamber’s immigration reform measure, crafted by the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators, including Durbin, on June 27.
Durbin acknowledged that the bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act Of 2013, or S. 744, is not perfect, but it includes a crucial component: a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants living illegally in the country.
Under the measure, undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements, such as passing a background check and paying a $2,000 fine, would eventually be able to gain U.S. citizenship.
There is a five- to 10-year wait period before undocumented immigrants could file for a green card, or permanent legal status, under the bill. While waiting for a green card, undocumented immigrants would receive a provisional immigrant status that is dependent upon the nation reaching several border security benchmarks within a 10-year period. After receiving a green card, there would be an additional three-year wait for the immigrants to apply for full U.S. citizenship.
The reform package also expands H-1B visas to foreign workers. Every job open to a potential H-1B visa holder, however, would have to be offered to Americans first.
Also, undocumented immigrants who came to the country as young children, known as Dreamers, could apply for citizenship within five years. Undocumented immigrants would be eligible for the shorter wait if they came to the country before the age of 16 and have completed high school or obtained a GED, among other provisions.
Fourteen Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R), and 54 Democrats voted for the bill. Kirk voted for the reform package after a stronger border security measure, known as the Corker-Hoeven amendment, was added to the overall bill. The amendment would double the number of patrol agents at the nation's southern border and require that a 700-mile fence be installed between the U.S. and Mexico before undocumented immigrants could earn legal status. As part of the amendment, undocumented immigrants could obtain provisional legal status before the security measures are met.
Durbin acknowledged that undocumented immigrants may have a “rough time” traveling the pathway to citizenship under the Senate's proposal.
But he added, “If we didn’t put that pathway in there, you tell me what would have happened? There would be 11 million people stuck here with no future, and so the pathway is tough, [but] the pathway is there.”
In the end, Durbin said he believed that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants would be able to meet the standards laid out in the bill and “make it through” to legal status and citizenship.
“America will be a better place when we have an immigration system that gives people a chance,” Durbin added.
Lawrence Benito, CEO and executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) said Latinos and immigrants played a decisive role in the outcome of the 2012 elections, and Republican leaders in general understand the importance of passing an immigration reform measure.
But it's not clear yet if, and how, the House will decide to reform America's approach to immigration, panelists said.
“Speaker John Boehner and other people in leadership have said the House is going to do their own version of a bill, but we have yet to see what’s going to happen,” Benito said.
Boehner said at the end of June that he would not bring any immigration reform measure up for a full House vote unless a majority of Republicans had already signed off on it.
Overall, the panelists said there are a few ways immigration reform could play out in the House.
First, a bipartisan immigration bill crafted by a Gang of Eight representatives (now a Gang of Seven after U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID, 1) left the group in early June), could be brought forth. Benito said the bipartisan group of representatives have likely not presented their proposal yet due to possible concerns from some Republicans who may not want to appear to the left of what Republicans in the Senate negotiated.
The other scenario involves a piecemeal immigration deal that could include various House proposals, such as the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act, or H.R. 2278. U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC, 4) sponsored the measure, which the House Judiciary Committee approved last month. The SAFE act looks to give states the power to create and enforce their own immigration laws. State and federal law enforcement agencies would also be allowed to coordinate under the law to enforce immigration laws, among other provisions.
In addition, a border enforcement measure the House Homeland Security Committee passed in May could also be part of a deal, Benito said.
Another potential component of a piecemeal deal could include the Legal Workforce Act of 2013, or H.R. 1772, which would require employers to use the E-Verify system. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA,6) and U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX, 21) sponsored the measure, which passed the judiciary committee at the end of June.
A third committee-approved measure is the Agricultural Guestworker Act, H.R. 1773, which looks to set up a temporary agricultural guestworker program. Goodlatte is the legislation's chief sponsor. The bill lays out similar provisions to those in the Senate immigration reform package, however it is concerning, Benito said, because it offers fewer protections for workers.
The final measure that could be part of a larger immigration reform deal in the House includes the SKILLS Visa Act, H.R. 2131. Under the measure, 55,000 green cards would be allocated for graduates of the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. The measure, introduced by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA, 49), would also increase the H-1B visa cap for high-skilled workers to 155,000 and allocate some 10,000 visas for immigrant entrepreneurs.
Separately, the House could decide to address the Senate’s immigration reform package; but Benito said that scenario is less likely to happen.
It is more likely that the House would send an immigration reform bill to a conference committee, that way leaders from both the House and Senate could hash out a deal that would win approval in both chambers, Benito explained.
Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum, said it is not yet known if an immigration reform proposal from the House would be better than nothing.
"That truly is the challenge, if we can even get anything passed through the House," she said.
Benito added that the House needs to address immigration reform sooner rather than later.
According to ICIRR, there are about 40 congressional swing districts. In the upcoming weeks, ICIRR and its sister coalitions across the country are going to put as much "heat" on House Republicans, specifically in the swing districts, as possible, Benito said.
Also, Maggie Rivera with the League of United Latin American Citizens said members of her organization would continue to pay visits to Illinois representatives in an effort to educate them on the Senate’s immigration reform bill. She said the league would put specific pressure on U.S. Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL,6) and Rodney Davis (R-IL,13).
“We’ve been debating this issue for a long time. If we were to come up with legislation, that’s easy to do. But this is no longer about policy, this is about politics and we’re geared up to impact the politics of the situation,” Benito stressed.