US Secretary of Commerce says immigration reform 'doable' in 2014

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Penny Pritzker, the US's Secretary of Commerce, has told journalists that she believes that there is a good chance that the US's immigration system could be reformed in 2014.

Ms Pritzker told a press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Wednesday January 8th 2014 that she was hopeful that the House of Representatives would pass an immigration reform bill already passed by the Senate in 2013.

She told her audience 'There's an enormous window in the first half of this year to actually get immigration reform done. I think the momentum is building'.

'A moral as well as an economic issue'

Speaking on Thursday 9th January 2014 in Los Angeles, Ms Pritzker raised the issue of immigration again. She told journalists that immigration reform 'must be at the top of our to-do list'. She said it is 'a moral as well as an economic issue that will create a huge 'economic opportunity' for the US.

Ms Pritzker said that it was 'crazy' that the US educates many of the world's brightest students at US universities but then does not allow these students to stay and work in the US. At present, talented students have to 'wait in line' for permanent residence visas (known as 'green cards').

Many applicants from India and China end up having to wait eight years or more for their applications to be decided.

Boehner's call

Ms Pritzker did not state which immigration bill she expects to be passed by the House of Representatives but she said that she was hopeful that the speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, would allow a vote on one of two bills that have already been passed by the Senate.

In June 2013, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act which would

  • Increase the annual number of H-1B temporary skilled work visas' from 85,000 to over 150,000. This figure could rise above 200,000 in periods of high demand
  • Allow graduates from US universities with higher degrees to apply for green cards
  • Increase spending on border security by $4.5bn over the next four years
  • Abolish country quotas for US employment based green cards
  • Create a 'pathway to citizenship' for the estimated 11.5m illegal residents currently living in the US.

Boehner decides

Mr Boehner holds a powerful position because he decides which bills will be voted on by the House of Representatives. There are two chambers in the US Congress, the upper house, the Senate, is controlled by President Obama's Democrats, whereas the lower house, the House of Representatives, is controlled by the right-wing Republicans.

So far, Mr Boehner has refused to allow a vote on any immigration reform bill.

Boehner opposes comprehensive reform bill

But he has recently hinted that he may allow a vote on immigration reform in 2014. However, aides to Mr Boehner have told journalists that he remains opposed to the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act.

'The American people are skeptical of big, comprehensive bills, and, frankly, they should be,' Mr Boehner told journalists recently. However, some US commentators believe that Mr Boehner may allow a vote on the Act to boost the Republicans' chances at the next election.

The Republicans took only 27% of the Hispanic vote at the 2012 Presidential election and many US pollsters believe that this is because of their stance on immigration. President Obama received over 70% of the Hispanic vote.

Obama promised immigration reform

At that election, Mr Obama promised to reform the immigration system to deal with the issue of the 11.5m illegal residents in the country, 80% of whom are of Hispanic descent.

At the same election, the Republican challenger Mitt Romney promised that, if he became president, he would introduce legislation to encourage illegal immigrants to leave the country by making their lives as difficult as possible.

Pollsters believe that many, perhaps most, US citizens of Hispanic descent have friends or family who are living in the US illegally. Therefore, most support the idea of an amnesty allowing illegal residents to apply for citizenship.

Republicans increasingly a party of white America

Republicans, on the other hand, are increasingly seen as the party of white America who oppose allowing illegal residents to apply for citizenship.

Since 2008 when the radical Tea Party movement began, the Republican Party has been moved to the right as Tea Party activists select candidates for Congress who support Tea Party principles.

The Tea Party is an informal grass roots movement but its goals are, broadly, to introduce cuts to the federal government, reduce taxes and to oppose immigration reform, particularly if that reform allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the US.

Pritzkers were immigrants

Ms Pritzker is a member of the wealthy Pritzker family which is based in Chicago. Her grandfather, Nicholas Pritzker, was a Jewish émigré from the Ukraine who arrived in the US in the late 19th century.

The family is now one of the wealthiest in the US. Her father Donald co-founded the Hyatt Hotel group. Ms Pritzker is worth an estimated $2.1bn and ten other members of the family also have billion dollar fortunes.

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