Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, both of whom are Democrats, split on the immigration reform bill passed yesterday by the Senate. The immigration reform bill passed the Senate by a vote of 62 to 36 with Senator Levin joining those in support of the bill and Senator Stabenow voting against it. Senator Levin, in explaining his vote in support of the bill, called it a “product of bipartisan compromise” and described how the bill will “make our borders more secure while creating a workable temporary worker program that protects US jobs.” Last week, the Michigan Senators were united in support of extending a fence along the United State Mexico border and also both voted against a measure that would make English the country’s “national language.” Earlier this week, both Senators voted to authorize the use of the National Guard along the United States’ southern border.
However, while many Democrats have supported the bill, the bill not only will militarize the border through the deployment of the National Guard, hiring of additional border agents, and the extension of a fence running along the United States-Mexico border—many of the benefits of the bill touted by its supporters are likely to remain elusive for many undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The bill—according to the Senate and the bill’s supporters—will offer as many as eight million undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years the opportunity to earn “legal status” and “eventual citizenship” if they pay back taxes and $3,250 in fines and fees, pass background checks, and learn English. Three million people believed to have entered the country between two and five years ago would be required to go across the border and re-enter the United States legally as temporary workers, but would be given the opportunity to apply for green cards. The two million people that the Senate determined to have been in the country for less than two years would be required to leave immediately and would have to apply to enter the country legally. The bill also will allow 200,000 foreign workers per year to enter the country each year through temporary work visas.
It has been argued by some opponents of the bill that the so-called “path to citizenship” opened by the bill would only be available to fifty percent of the undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. Moreover, any immigrants who have used false Social Security numbers or false names to obtain employment at any time while in the United States would be excluded from the process of gaining citizenship. There is also a cut-off date of January 7, 2004, which means that anyone entering the country after that date is ineligible for anything the bill offers aside from immediate deportation if caught. The guest worker program, which has been touted by many as a means of controlling immigration and supplying a necessary supply of labor to the United States, essentially reinstitutes a system similar to the Bracero Program in the 1960s that was called by Department of Labor official Lee G. Williams a system of “legalized slavery” when it was finally terminated. The guest worker program would essentially tie workers to specific employers and would give workers few rights to change jobs or organize to improve their conditions, thus making them vulnerable to exploitation. Additionally, an amendment to the bill made by Democratic Senator Robert Bryd attached a provision that requires undocumented immigrants to pay towards border security in the form of a $500 dollar fee that will be required of undocumented immigrants attempting to gain citizenship through the methods outlined in the bill. This $500 fee would be in addition to those required elsewhere in the bill.
Critics have also argued that the bill diminishes due process for immigrants by making it easier for the government to detain and deport immigrants. The Senate bill has adjusted what constitutes an “aggravated felony” under immigration law and made it so that carrying fraudulent documents or shoplifting, to name some examples, are felonies that would result in immediate deportation regardless of when the crimes were committed. Courts would also be given less area to review the cases of immigrants with US Circuit Courts only being allowed to consider whether an immigration agency had reasonable grounds for its decision with the courts being unable to rule on the quality of the decision. Similarly, Border Patrol officers would have expanded powers to jail and deport immigrants without judicial review whom they suspected crossed the border illegally. Immigrants who committed crimes several years ago may be considered having committed an aggravated felony according to the Senate bill and penalties have been enacted for legal immigrants that do not notify the government when they move under a little known section of current immigration law that requires that the government be notified of changes of address.
The Senate bill, despite its numerous problems, is considerably less draconian than the House of Representatives’ HR 4437 that was passed less December. HR 4437 would consider undocumented immigrants to be felons and would make it a crime for priests, nuns, health care workers, and social workers to assist undocumented immigrants in the United States. While House and Senate bills are considerably different, they must now go to a conference committee that will attempt to reconcile the differences in the two bills in an effort to construct a bill that will pass in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The reconciliation process is expected to take much of the summer with many conservative Republicans opposing what it considers to be provisions for “amnesty” in the Senate bill.