Obama says US immigration reform should be complete in six months

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Speaking in a TV interview on Wednesday 30th January 2013, President Obama said that he expects comprehensive immigration reform legislation to be passed by the US Congress within the next six months. The President told Spanish language TV station Telemundo that he expected the legislation to be passed by the end of 2013 but said he would make every effort to ensure that it passed quicker. 'I can guarantee that I will put everything behind it' he said.

He later told rival Spanish television station Univision that he was not prepared to see immigration reform delayed. The President said that he intended to allow Congress to legislate to reform the system but warned that, if Congress failed to do so, he would introduce his own legislation and make Congress vote on reform again.

In the US, when politicians speak of 'immigration reform' they are almost always referring to the issue of illegal immigration, largely from Mexico. There are, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, some 11m illegal immigrants in the US, well over half of these being from Mexico and around 80% overall coming from Latin America. Other immigration issues pale into insignificance because of the sheer numbers, and costs, involved; Last year, the US spent some $18bn on policing the border with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration; more than the amount spent on all other law enforcement combined.

America 'founded by immigrants'

The President promised immigration reform during his re-election campaign last year. He also promised it during his first election campaign in 2008. This time, however, the President says that he will deliver on his promise. The President pointed out in a speech on Tuesday 29th January that most Americans are of immigrant stock. The Country was founded by immigrants.

The President has said that he owes his election victory in November 2012 to Hispanic voters. Hispanic voters are the fastest growing section of the US electorate. They currently number some 50m and this number is expected to grow to 110m by 2050. Over 70% of Hispanic voters voted for the President in the November election, largely, analysts believe, because Republican challenger Mitt Romney took such a hard line on illegal immigration. Mr Romney said that he favoured a policy of 'self-deportation' which involves making life so unpleasant and difficult for those in the country illegally that they choose to leave.

This demographic projection is the reason, Washington insiders say, that immigration reform has become so important in Washington. Some Republican analysts believe that the party must change its tune on immigration or risk becoming perpetual losers in US Presidential elections.

House Republicans oppose reform

However, there is a considerable number of Republican Congressmen and women who are opposed to any immigration reforms that result in illegal immigrants being allowed to say in the US; they will do their best to stop it happening.

Under the US system, for a new law to be passed both chambers of Congress; the Senate and the House of Representatives must vote in favour of it. Then the President has to sign it into law, giving him a veto on legislation.

In the case of immigration reform, the Democrats control the Senate and could vote a reform bill through without Republican support. This may not actually be necessary as a bipartisan agreement on reform has been reached and some Republicans are helping to formulate the proposed law.

Senior Republicans in the Senate including former presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona, Lindsay Graham of North Carolina and Marcio Rubio of Florida have worked with senior Democrats including Charles Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois to create a framework for legislation.

Comprehensive reform programme

The basic elements of the framework are
• The establishment of a 'path to citizenship' for the 11m illegal immigrants currently living in the US.
• Strengthening security along the Mexican border
• More resources to be put into tracking foreign nationals in the US on visas.
• Overhauling the US visa system to reduce backlogs.
• Awarding green cards to foreign technology graduates from US universities
• Rolling out a national 'e-verify' system to prevent illegal aliens from working in the US
• Establishment of a low-skilled migrant worker visa which would allow US employers to employ foreign workers in sectors such as agriculture where it is impossible to recruit US citizens.

As yet, few details of the legislation have emerged. US business will be waiting to see the details of the reforms to be made to the employment-based migration system. Industry voices from companies such as Microsoft and TechAmerica have complained for some time that the restrictions on the numbers of foreign skilled workers allowed to move to the US to work is harmful to the economy.

Last year, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, joined forces with media tycoon Rupert Murdoch to call for all graduates in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) to have a green card (or permanent resident permit) 'stapled to their diplomas'). Various bills have bLamar Smith een introduced to increase the numbers of green cards granted but there has, as yet, been no change to the law.

US business will also be looking for reforms in the numbers of H-1B visas and L1 visas that are awarded each year. Business claims that restrictions in the numbers of economic migrants are damaging the US economy.

More H-1B and L1 visas

At present, there is a cap of 65,000 on the number of H-1B visas that can be granted in any one year. The visas are granted to foreign workers who are skilled in a 'specialty occupation'. So great is the demand for H-1B visas that the cap is usually reached within two months of the start of the new financial year every April. They are 'dual intent' visas which means that they can also have the intent to apply for permanent residence visas. However, employment based immigration is difficult. It can take years for an employment based immigration petition to be approved.

International businesses will no doubt lobby Congress for a reform of the L1 visa system. L1 visas allow employees of international companies to transfer to the US to work. L1-A visas are for managers and L-1B visas are for skilled workers with 'specialized knowledge'. International businesses have complained that it has become harder for their staff to get L1 visas. In 2012, international software company Oracle complained 38% of its L1-B applications were refused in 2011, including one made on behalf of an Indian employees who was refused an L1-B visa on the grounds that he did not have 'specialized knowledge' of a particular piece of software despite the fact that he had written the user manual for this software package.

House of Representatives opposed

All of these issues will need to be resolved and, there will be, no doubt, much horse-trading behind the scenes. Nonetheless, the President can be more or less certain that the Senate will pass reform. He is likely to have more difficulties, however, with the House of Representatives which is controlled by the Republicans. While Republican leader in the House, John Boehner has said that he will cooperate on reform, many right-wing Republicans, particularly those who have been elected thanks to the efforts of the right-wing anti-Washington, anti-government, anti-tax, anti-immigration Tea Party movement, are opposed to any change in the law that could be seen as an amnesty for illegal immigrants and could block reform legislation. Representative Lamar Smith of Texas said on Monday that any amnesty for illegal immigrants would cost American jobs and lead to further illegal immigration.

The President, it seems, is not prepared to allow the House to thwart him. His thinking appears to be that, by forcing a vote on reform in the House, he will show the electorate that it is Republicans in the House that are holding up reform thereby making them even less popular with the electorate who are frustrated with the perpetual lack of cooperation in Washington. The President hopes it seems, to force House Republicans to vote for reform of some sort. The Democrats have also offered an olive branch to the Republicans by including a commitment to strengthening the US's borders to prevent further illegal immigration in the proposed legislation.

Right wingers warn Republicans against cooperation

However, there are voices on the right that are warning the Republicans not to compromise. Steven Camarota of the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies has warned that 'Hispanics have the most negative view of capitalism – 55% had a negative view. You cannot add millions of liberal citizens to your country and not expect public policy to change.'

Mr Camarota has also warned that the 1.1m legal immigrants who become US citizens every year are also moving the country to the left and risk making the Republicans unelectable. He has called for a reduction of immigration to the level of about 300,000 a year. If this occurred, he said 'then I think conservatives might have a fighting chance.'

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