Beyond the Border Surge, What Else Is In the Senate Compromise?

5376966004_8d13877cc2_zOn Monday, the Senate voted 67 to 27 to invoke cloture on Leahy 1183, an amendment to substitute the current version of the Senate’s immigration reform bill, S. 744, with a revised version of the bill that includes a host of amendments that have been referred to as the Corker/Hoeven compromise—or, more simply, the border surge. Thirty hours from that vote—sometime Wednesday morning—the Senate will actually vote on whether to adopt Leahy 1183. The cloture vote is a strong indicator of passage of the amendment and, many predict, of the bill overall.

Response to the vote was mixed. Pro-immigrant border groups were understandably critical of the tremendous build up on the border that Corker/Hoeven authorizes, but these criticisms were muted by support for the overall process. In other words, many organizations weighed both the policy and political equation, finding that, on balance, supporting the amendment remained the best chance of getting comprehensive immigration reform and preserving a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops noted:

Nevertheless, understanding the need for bipartisan compromise on a very difficult issue, we continue to support moving this legislation forward at this stage of the legislative process. In our view, the overall benefits of this legislation outweigh the adverse impacts of our current system, which relegates millions to living in the shadows and subjects them to family separation, detention, and exploitation.

With all the attention on the border aspects of the Corker/Hoeven compromise, however, other details of the changes to S. 744 have been overlooked. Although it is difficult to put aside the high price tag and micro-managing of border security, the amendment package also reached critical compromises on issues that threatened the legalization program and the future of other immigrant visas. For instance, there were a host of benefits issues proposed or threatened by Senator Hatch and others that would have required complex and onerous reporting requirements for back taxes, further limited access to health care, and put an end to earned income tax credits. Instead, the compromise settled on Social Security credits, denying anyone in Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, or who overstayed their nonimmigrant visa, the opportunity to claim any credit for work performed between January 1, 2004 and December 31, 2013, unless they could prove they were authorized to work during that time or they were issued a Social Security card prior to 2004. This isn’t pretty, but many concluded it was the best of a bad set of options.

As another example, the compromise shut out disturbing proposals to require RPIs to pass the English and civics naturalization test at the time they apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status and similar provisions that would have accelerated the requirement even further. For instance, one amendment  filed by Sen. Fischer of Nebraska would have required immigrants to pass the test before they even applied for RPI status. Other amendments that could have been voted on, but are likely out of the mix due to the compromise, include even tougher penalties on new immigrants who break any law or the criminalization of unauthorized immigrants, particularly those who overstay their visas.

Instead, under the compromise the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have to prioritize the removal or disposition of cases of new visa overstays. DHS will also have to place rescue beacons along the southern border to help prevent migrant deaths and will have to start reporting and monitoring migrant deaths in the desert. The compromise also restricts much of the Border Patrol’s authority to conduct warrantless searches along the Northern border.

The compromise includes some important revisions to legal immigration mechanisms as well, including waiving the 3 and 10-year bar requirements for immigrants eligible for backlog reduction under the merit-based track two program. It protects cultural exchange visitors in the summer work travel program from exploitation without jeopardizing other cultural exchange programs, something the original S. 744 did not do.

Most notably, the compromise includes an amendment from Sen. Sanders (I-Vt) to establish a Youth Jobs Fund for low-income youth and for young people with disabilities. This fund would be distributed to states following submission of proposals to the Department of Labor and would be paid for by a 10 dollar surcharge on employers filing employment-based immigrant and non-immigrant visa applications.

Unfortunately, there remains a vast gulf between the politics of immigration and good public policy on immigration reform. S. 744 contains a number of important provisions, not only on legalization, but on a host of other issues, that must be fixed if we are to move forward as a country. The Corker/Hoeven compromise represents a two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach to immigration, but the bottom line is that it means we are still moving forward.

Photo Courtesy of Bill Morrow.

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