Regardless of the prolonged and often controversial fight over comprehensive immigration reform, immigration bills do occasionally make it through Congress. Such bills tend to be very specific, concrete, almost technical changes to existing laws. Not surprisingly, many of those bills are tied to issues that have broad bipartisan support like perfecting refugee provisions or making it easier for people to work for the military. Two bills that fit this description are The Return of Talent Act (S. 2974) and The Refugee Opportunity Act (S. 2960), both very discrete and positive bills that have nothing to do with comprehensive immigration reform and that may become law later this year.

The Refugee Opportunity Act, sponsored by Senators Leahy (D-VT), Cardin (D-MD), Feingold (D-WI), and Lugar (R-IN), creates an exception to the physical presence requirement for refugees who, during their first year in the United States, accept employment overseas with the armed services or with a federal agency to further U.S. policy. According to Senator Leahy’s office, the bill “will assist refugees in the process of building a new life by expanding employment opportunities and it will allow the federal government to benefit from refugees’ language and other skills.”

The second piece of legislation, the Return of Talent Act, is sponsored by Senators Leahy (D-VT), Durbin (D-IL), Lugar (R-IN), and Feingold (D-WI). The Return of Talent Act would allow legal permanent residents to work abroad and not have that break in continuous presence in the U.S. affect his or her application later for naturalization—provided that this work is related to post-conflict or natural disaster reconstruction activities run by the U.S. or United Nations. Current law requires LPRs to reside continuously in the U.S. for at least five years before they can apply for naturalization to become a citizen, but this bill would create an exception by permitting the aliens to count the time spent outside of the U.S. toward the naturalization physical presence requirement.

The Return of Talent Act would also allow LPRs who are medical professions to go to countries other than their country of citizenship or nationality for extended periods of time. Senator Leahy stated that the bill is especially timely considering the recent earthquakes in Chili and Haiti, and the opportunity for those on a pathway to citizenship to engage in meaningful work in their former country.

Both bills were unanimously cleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 25, 2010, and will likely go to the Senate floor some time before the end of the current session. So far, no one has threatened to filibuster these bills, which makes them significantly different from comprehensive immigration reform. Even the so far non-existent CIR bill is facing pushback from politicians like Senator Kyl (R-AZ), who stated in a town hall meeting that Republicans would filibuster any such bill (hopefully the irony is not lost on Senator Kyl, supporter of a 2007 comprehensive immigration bill).

There’s an important lesson to be learned from these significant but technical bills. Immigration remains a bipartisan issue—aspiring for more rather than less should be the goal.

Photo by IFRC