When the House and Senate (110th Congress) convene on January 4, 2007, comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) will be a priority on their legislative agenda. So far, CIR has involved mostly enforcing immigration laws and controlling the Southern border. On October 26, 2006, for example, President George Bush signed The Secure Fence Act, authorizing the construction of hundreds of miles of additional fencing along the Southern border; more vehicle barriers, checkpoints, and lighting to help prevent people from entering the U.S. illegally; and the use of advanced technology like cameras, satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles to reinforce the border.
But the presence of millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S. demands comprehensive and humane immigration reform, not just law enforcement and border patrol. The Democrat-controlled 110th Congress will include new legislators who may offer the best opportunity for changes in U.S. immigration laws. The focus on immigration reform during the midterm elections and the recent Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid at Swift & Company production plants, which targeted undocumented workers, should further add to the pro-CIR momentum.
Swift & Company Raids – One More Sign of a Broken Immigration System
On December 12, 2006, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE agents raided six Swift & Company meat-processing plants, located in Worthington, Minnesota; Cactus, Texas; Grand Island, Nebraska; Greeley, Colorado; Hyrum, Utah; and Marshalltown, Iowa, to determine the immigrant status of workers and arrest those without employment authorization.
Since 1997, Swift has participated in the federal Basic Pilot program – a voluntary, online verification system that allows employers to check federal databases to confirm whether new hires are authorized to work. Using this program, Swift compares a job applicant’s social security number to the federal database to determine if it is real. The DHS used information gathered by Swift in the pilot program to build a case for the December raid. One goal was to arrest workers who used real, but stolen social security numbers.
Swift lawyers argued that federal law bars the government from imposing penalties on the company for data gathered in the program. On December 7th, however, U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson ruled against Swift. Five days later, ICE agents arrived at the Swift plants. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff touted the raids, stating, "This is not only a case of illegal immigration, which is bad enough. It is a case of identity theft and the violation of the privacy rights and the economic rights of innocent Americans.”
The raids resulted in the arrest of 1,282 allegedly undocumented immigrant workers. But only 65 were actually charged with identify theft, felony reentry after deportation, or other crimes. The remaining 1,217 are being held on immigration charges alone.
Immigrant advocacy groups argue that such raids uproot communities, disrupt local economies, and hurt workers who are simply trying to feed their families. Hundreds of apprehended immigrants were still separated from their families more than one week after the raids.
Meanwhile, those who want tougher enforcement call for similar raids in other industries. In the wake of the raids, Congressman Tom Tancredo, R-Littleton, stated, “I have already publicly commended DHS and ICE for conducting this work site enforcement at Swift.” The Chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus added, “This kind of enforcement action by ICE has been sorely missing over the past decade and I urge you to expand such operations to other industries.”
The Swift raid is just one more sign that U.S. immigration policy is broken and needs reform. At a press conference on December 20, President Bush called on Congress for a comprehensive immigration bill on his desk by 2007, “and a plan that says if you’re coming into America to do a job, you can come legally for a temporary basis to do so.”
“The system we have in place has caused people to rely upon smugglers and forgers in order to do work Americans aren’t doing,” President Bush said. “It is a system that, frankly, leads to inhumane treatment of people.” He continued: “The best way to deal with an issue that Americans agree on — that we ought to enforce our borders in a humane way — is we’ve got to have a comprehensive bill.”
Window of Opportunity for Immigration Reform
In December 2005, the GOP-controlled House passed an enforcement-only bill – House Bill 4437 (The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005) – by a vote of 239 to 182 (92% of Republicans supporting, 82% of Democrats opposing). The Senate is considering this bill, after amendment by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In May 2006, the Senate passed a less Draconian, more balanced bill – Senate Bill 2611 (Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act/CIRA) – by a vote of 62 to 36 (90% of Democrats supporting, 59% of Republicans opposing). The Senate Bill proposes a guest-worker program through a new “blue card” visa program, allows long-time illegal immigrants to gain citizenship with some restrictions, and permits young people to gain lawful status by succeeding in college. If enacted, the Senate Bill would be the most dramatic change in immigration law in 80 years, permitting approximately 103 million persons to immigrate legally to the U.S. over the next 20 years.
Because of its prior experience with CIR, the Senate is more likely to draft a comprehensive bill for consideration in committee within the first couple months of 2007. The House, which debated enforcement-only legislation during 2006, lacks experience with comprehensive immigration reform. So the House may take more time or pursue a different path than the Senate in its effort to fix the broken immigration system. With Democrats gaining seats in the House, comprehensive immigration reform is a strong possibility when the 110th Congress convenes.