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Senators From Both Sides, President Obama Offer Framework for Immigration Overhaul

Monday, February 4, 2013

A bipartisan group of eight senators released a “framework” of principles Jan. 28 that they hope to see included in immigration overhaul legislation to be hashed out in the Senate in the coming months, while the following day President Obama delivered his vision for an immigration measure.

Although no detailed immigration legislation has been introduced yet in either the House or the Senate, the document outlines four “basic legislative pillars,” and puts forward general elements that they would like to see in an immigration bill.

The senators who signed on to the document include four Democrats and four Republicans: Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

“We still have a long way to go, but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough,” Schumer said at a Capitol Hill news conference. He added that the senators hoped to draft legislation by March, followed by a markup by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The goal is Senate passage by “late spring or summer,” he said.

“We believe this will be the year Congress finally gets [an immigration overhaul] done,” Schumer said.

Four Pillars of Overhaul

The four “pillars” outlined by the senators include: the creation of a “tough but fair path to citizenship”; changing the legal immigration system “to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families”; the creation of “an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers”; and the establishment of “an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation's workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers.”

“What's going on now is unacceptable,” McCain said at the news conference. “The reality that's been created is a de facto amnesty. We have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawns, serve our food, clean our homes, and even watch our children while not affording them any of the benefits that make our country so great.”

To that end, the framework would provide that immigrants currently in the United States illegally would need to pass a background check and pay fines and back taxes before earning “probationary legal status,” the document said. Those with “serious criminal records” would be ineligible for legal status.

At the same time, the government would take steps to secure the nation's borders through a variety of means, including increased border surveillance, and would step up enforcement. Immigrants would not be able to earn work authorizations before the enforcement steps were in place, the framework document said.

'Quick and Accurate’ Verification System

The document says that any employment verification system “must hold employers accountable for knowingly hiring undocumented workers and make it more difficult for unauthorized immigrants to falsify documents to obtain employment.”

Durbin, during the news conference, said that any verification system must be “quick and accurate.”

“The employee verification system in our proposal will be crafted with procedural safeguards to protect American workers, prevent identity theft, and provide due process protections,” the framework said.

The proposal also addressed “admitting new workers and protecting workers' rights,” stating, “[O]ur proposal will provide businesses with the ability to hire lower-skilled workers in a timely manner when Americans are unavailable or unwilling to fill those jobs.”

Employers would be required to demonstrate that they were “unsuccessful in recruiting an American to fill an open position and the hiring of an immigrant will not displace American workers,” the framework said.

“We're making sure the amount of legal immigration allowed into the United States is based on the state of our economy,” Durbin said. “We are going to enshrine the principle that when it comes to job openings, Americans get the first grab at them.”

Durbin also emphasized that he first introduced the DREAM Act 12 years ago. That measure would allow undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to achieve permanent residency, and must be “an integral part of comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.

The proposal would also “allow more lower-skilled immigrants to come here when our economy is creating jobs, and fewer when our economy is not creating jobs.”

The issue of regulating future flows of immigrants based on economic factors has held up previous attempts at passing immigration overhaul legislation.

“Future flow has been one of the shoals upon which the good ship immigration reform has floundered,” Schumer said. “We know that.” He said he and other senators had been consulting with the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, as well as with business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Labor, Business Discussing Future Flows

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, and Thomas Donohue, president of the chamber, have also been hashing out immigration proposals in recent weeks.

“It would be best, from our point of view, if business and labor could agree on a future flow proposal,” Schumer said. “Obviously we'd have to agree with it too. That would be very helpful.”

Trumka in a statement called the set of proposals “an important and long overdue first step toward addressing our country's broken immigration system.”

But he expressed concern about the requirement that immigrants seeking legal status would need to prove they were employed.

“We are concerned that making the citizenship path consistent on proof of employment at the time enforcement measures are deemed completed could be problematic,” Trumka said. “Depending on implementation, the principles could potentially exclude millions of workers--those who care for our children and our elderly, mow our lawns and repair our homes, drive taxis--who cannot prove employment because they have been forced to work off the clock or have no employer by virtue of being independent contractors. It would also exclude immigrants who are employers themselves. We hope that this sort of acknowledgement of economic reality informs the actual bill drafting process.”

Donohue, of the chamber, said in a statement that his organization “strongly support[s] the outline for immigration reform issued by the bipartisan group of senators.”

“We know that many details will need to be worked out, but we are very encouraged by this framework for reform and look forward to helping advance comprehensive immigration legislation and build public support,” Donohue said.

Obama Pledges to Send Bill to Congress

President Obama, in a speech delivered Jan. 29 at a high school in Las Vegas, offered his vision for immigration overhaul legislation, including stepped-up enforcement against employers that hire undocumented workers and various changes to the immigration system designed to make it less burdensome for both employers and workers.

Obama said “the time has come” to address the issues. At the same time, the White House released a fact sheet detailing the president's plans for immigration reform.

Obama said the principles expressed by the eight senators were “very much in line” with his own thinking. But “action must follow,” he said.

Obama said the ideas he expressed in his speech were intended as a foundation for potential immigration legislation moving ahead in Congress.

“It's important for us to recognize that the foundation for bipartisan action is already in place,” Obama said. “And if Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.”

“[W]e have an immigration system that's out of date and badly broken; a system that's holding us back instead of helping us grow our economy and strengthen our middle class,” Obama said.

Currently, Obama said, undocumented immigrants work in a “shadow economy, a place where employers may offer them less than the minimum wage or make them work overtime without extra pay.”

“And when that happens, it's not just bad for them, it's bad for the entire economy,” since businesses following the law are disadvantaged, he said.

“We have to bring this shadow economy into the light so that everybody is held accountable--businesses for who they hire, and immigrants for getting on the right side of the law,” Obama said.

According to the White House fact sheet, the president's proposals encompass four main components: continuing to secure the nation's borders, “cracking down on employers hiring undocumented workers,” providing a pathway to “earned citizenship,” and “streamlining legal immigration.”

The employment aspects of Obama's plan include an enhanced employment verification system.

“We need to implement a national system that allows businesses to quickly and accurately verify someone's employment status,” Obama said. “And if they still knowingly hire undocumented workers, then we need to ramp up the penalties.”

According to the fact sheet, the plan calls for electronic employment verification to become mandatory for employers over a five-year period. Some small businesses would be exempt from the requirements, the fact sheet said.

The White House fact sheet also said the president's proposal “protects workers against retaliation for exercising their labor rights.”

“It increases the penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers to skirt the workplace standards that protect all workers,” the fact sheet said. “And it creates a 'labor law enforcement fund’ to help ensure that industries that employ significant numbers of immigrant workers comply with labor laws.”

Similar to the senators' proposal, Obama's plan calls for a path to “earned citizenship” for undocumented workers.

Obama also addressed high-skill immigration, calling attention to the fact that many foreign students come to the United States to earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields, but then are not able to remain in the country legally.

“Right now … there's a student wrestling with how to turn their big idea … into a big business,” Obama said. “We're giving them all the skills they need to figure that out, but then we're going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico or someplace else? That's not how you grow new industries in America.”

To that end, the fact sheet said, the president favors awarding green cards to master's and Ph.D. graduates of U.S. universities in STEM fields. At the same time, employers would pay a fee “that will support education and training to grow the next generation of American workers in STEM careers,” the fact sheet said.

Annual country caps for employer-sponsored immigration also would be eliminated under the president's plan, according to the fact sheet.

By Michael Rose  


Text of the framework proposal is available at http://op.bna.com/dlrcases.nsf/r?Open=smgk-94e28f. Text of the White House fact sheet is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/01/29/fact-sheet-fixing-our-broken-immigration-system-so-everyone-plays-rules.

 

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