Immigration on deck

Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and  Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) will introduce legislation today that is expected to serve as the basis for a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House.

The measure kicks off this year’s immigration debate in Congress — a debate House Democratic leaders shied away from due to its potential to split key allies among labor unions and endanger Democrats from conservative districts.

ADVERTISEMENT
Gutierrez, the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s task force on immigration, and other House Hispanic leaders criticized Democratic leaders last year for not mentioning immigration in “New Direction for America,” the campaign document Democrats unveiled before the election as a general guide to their policy priorities.

In January, several of the largest Hispanic advocacy groups in the country, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, and the Hispanic Federation, announced plans to stage a massive grassroots campaign to pressure House lawmakers to move quickly on immigration.

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) quickly identified immigration reform as one of his top priorities, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave little indication at the beginning of the year about what her chamber would focus on after passing its 100-hour agenda.

“We see this is as a great start to the effort,” said Bob Sakaniwa, an associate director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “We’re excited to see the debate finally starting.”

Sakaniwa said that while he had not seen the bill’s final details, he had heard that many of the provisions his organization supports are included, such as measures reducing immigration backlogs and strengthening enforcement of immigration law.

Sakaniwa and other reform advocates say that the Gutierrez-Flake bill will be the most comprehensive proposal in the House.

The two lawmakers introduced similar legislation in the last Congress as a companion to legislation sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and favored by Senate Democrats.

In a nod to unions, the legislation also mandates strong workplace protections. It would require employers to give foreign workers the same wages and working conditions as U.S. workers.

But the AFL-CIO, the nation’s broadest union, is not supporting the legislation, at least not yet.

“It would be premature to say we’re not on board as it would be to say we support it,” said Sonia Ramirez, legislative representative at the AFL-CIO.

 “We did not support the bills and did not oppose the bills either,” she said of last year’s Senate and House versions of the Gutierrez-Flake proposal.  “We saw several components we wanted to strengthen. We wanted to enhance the labor protections … I think our objection to the structure of these bills was based on size and scope of temporary worker programs in the bills.”

“If a bill is moving, we will obviously be part of the process of strengthening worker protections of U.S. and foreign-born workers,” she added. “This proposal sets in motion a process that will go through long debate and go through the committee process.”

Since last year, Gutierrez and Flake have modified their proposal to make it more palatable to Republicans and centrist Democrats.

Perhaps most significantly, the legislation will include a so-called “touchback provision” that would require immigrants to return briefly to their home countries before re-entering to apply for permanent legal residency. According to Flake, however, if immigrants met a series of requirements, such as paying owed taxes and a fine, and undergoing background and health checks, they would be given a re-entry visa before returning home. Flake explained that would make the process of leaving and re-entering the country a formality.

“There’ll be some on my side of the aisle who will scream amnesty, but if you look at this realistically, it’s not,” said Flake. “The fastest anyone here could become a citizen would be more than 15 years.”

Flake explained that immigrants would be allowed to work in the U.S. for two three-year periods before they would be required to re-enter the country and apply for permanent legal status. He said before immigrants could get their green card, they would have to learn English. That marks a toughening of the earlier version of the bill, which had required immigrants learn English before achieving full citizenship.

Once immigrants touched back to their home countries and applied for permanent legal status, they would have to wait in line behind all pending green-card applicants residing domestically and abroad.

“The most important part is that nobody who is here illegally now can get a green card until everyone else who is in line does, until everyone who is currently in the queue has gone through,” said Flake. “That will take five or six years.”

Flake said the legislation has been toughened in other ways. For example, the guest worker program and path to citizenship will not be implemented until the Department of Homeland Security certifies that progress has been made securing the border. Another prerequisite would be a verification system that assigns immigrants identification cards with biometric data, making them more difficult to forge or transfer.

In earlier legislation, these law enforcement measures were not pre-conditions for setting up a guest worker program, Flake said.

Gutierrez has already met with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over immigration reform. He has also shared his bill with the House Democratic leadership.

“Congresswoman Lofgren would like to applaud their efforts for addressing the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Pedro Ribeiro, Lofgren’s spokesman. “She welcomes all input from congressional colleagues and looks forward to working with everyone including Mr. Gutierrez and Mr. Flake on putting together a comprehensive immigration reform package.”

Lofgren’s subcommittee, on which Gutierrez is the second-ranking Democrat, will hold hearings in the next few weeks.