Deal on US immigration enforcement should see reform act pass Senate

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Immigration moved centre stage in Washington last week as Congress debated the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act 2013 ('the bill'). This bill will, if it becomes law, comprehensively reform the US immigration system.

There was good news for supporters of reform when it emerged that the bill should pass the upper house of Congress, The Senate, by 70 votes to 30 after senators reached a deal on border security.

The bill must be passed by both houses of Congress with 60% support to become law but its supporters want it to gain at least 70 votes in the Senate to put pressure on the lower house, the House of Representatives, to pass the bill too.

$50bn extra to be spent on US border security

News of the deal emerged on Thursday 20th June 2013. A Republican amendment which would see a further $50bn spent on border security along the US's south-western border with Mexico was accepted. The extra money would be spent on doubling the number of border guards and on manned and unmanned reconnaissance planes, radar and electronic surveillance equipment.

The US already spends US$18bn on border security annually; more than all other law enforcement combined. The original draft of the bill proposed spending a further $4.5bn but this was not enough for some Republicans.

For years politicians from both parties have agreed that the US immigration system is 'broken' but, as ever in Washington, they cannot agree on what to do about it. Congress is bitterly divided along party lines and it has become almost impossible in recent years for any legislation to be passed, particularly because the balance of power is so fine. The Democrats hold the 100 seat Senate by 54:46 whereas the Republicans hold the 435 seat House by 234 seats to 201 (54% to 46%).

Bipartisan cooperation is rare in Washington

This means that bills require bipartisan support to become law but the bitter rivalry between the parties means cooperation is rare.

President Obama promised to make immigration reform a major priority in his second term. He left the drafting of the bill to a group of eight Senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, known as the Gang of Eight, in the hope that this might encourage bipartisan support. The bill would

  • Increase border security
  • Provide a 'pathway to citizenship' for the 11.5m illegal immigrants living in the US. This 'pathway' would be long and hard. It will take well over ten years for those who apply to become citizens.
  • Award permanent resident visas (or 'green cards') for foreign students who receive doctorates and PhDs from US universities
  • Increase the number of H-1B 'specialty occupation' temporary work visas granted each year from the current level of 85,000 annually to a maximum of about 200,000 annually
  • Create a 'w-visa' for low-skilled workers in agriculture and construction
  • Require US employers to check the employment status of all workers against the E-Verify system before employing them
It is the second provision which causes many Republican Congressmen to oppose the bill. Republicans believe that the establishment of a 'pathway to citizenship' for illegal immigrants is wrong because it rewards criminal behaviour; entering the country or remaining in the country illegally. They also argue that, if the pathway is established before the border is secured, within a few years, there will be another 11m illegal immigrants pressing for citizenship.

Republicans fear illegal immigrants would vote Democrat if given citizenship

They are also concerned because 80% of illegal immigrants in the US are of Hispanic descent and Hispanic voters overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

Republican strategists tell Congressmen that, unless they back reform, to appeal to Hispanic voters, there will never be another Republican President because Hispanic voters are growing rapidly as a proportion of the electorate.

One Republican senator, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Gang of Eight, has warned colleagues that, if they vote 'no', they will be locked in a 'demographic death spiral' and face electoral oblivion.

Without reform there will be no more Republican presidents –Senator Menendez

Another senator, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, warned that, without reform, 'there will never be a road to the White House for the Republican Party'.

Nonetheless, many Republican Congressmen and women seem to be opposed to the bill. The reason for that may be self-interest. The US system of primary elections means that, before a politician can stand for election he has to be elected to stand by his local party members.

These activists are usually more extreme than the general population. Many have said they will deselect any Congressman who backs the bill. In short, Republican Congressmen have to choose between their careers and their party's chance of regaining the presidency.

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