U.S. House Democrats Make New Immigration Reform Push

A demonstrator marches through the streets of downtown Dallas to protest the passage of Arizona's controversial new immigration law.
A demonstrator marches through the streets of downtown Dallas to protest the passage of Arizona's controversial new immigration law.

As the federal government shutdown continues for a second day, congressional Democrats say they are looking to make sure comprehensive immigration reform doesn’t fall off the priority list, as they announced legislation on Wednesday that includes elements of a border-security measure backed by a key GOP leader.

Like the Senate bill, S. 744, which passed by that chamber in June, a version of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act by U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., includes a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the qualifying undocumented immigrants in the country, with a shorter path for DREAM Act-eligible youths.

It does not, however, contain the Corker-Hoeven amendment, adopted by the Senate, which would double the amount of U.S. Border Patrol officers and add hundreds of miles of fencing. Instead, the new House measure creates border security metrics and goals, including achieving “operational control” of the border. Operational control is defined as achieving a 90 percent apprehension rate for illegal border crossers and significant reduction of the movement of drugs and other contraband.

That language is similar to a standalone bill filed by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which passed out of that committee in May. McCaul and other key GOP leaders said in July they would not consider the Senate bill, citing its border security measures as inadequate.

During a news conference on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said McCaul’s measure was added to garner support from Republicans and show that Democrats are willing to work across the aisle.

“Subtract Corker-Hoeven, add McCaul-Thompson,” she said, referring to the committee’s ranking member, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. “Every piece of this legislation has bipartisan support.”

McCaul’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday’s announcement. The chairman said in June that his measure was independent of reform measures and instead a standalone border security provision.

A Homeland Security Committee staffer said H.R. 1417 should not be tied to partisan legislation that does not have the support of Congress or the American people, who do not want to repeat the reform efforts of 1986, which critics say didn't close the border and actually fueled more illegal immigration.

U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said that despite a partially shuttered government, lawmakers had an obligation to work with Republicans on issues that have bipartisan support.

Under the House bill, applicants for legal status, called Registered Provisional Immigrant status, must have been in the country since Dec. 31, 2011, have not been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors, have paid taxes and passed background checks, and must pay other fees and penalties. Undocumented immigrants who have committed certain offenses are excluded. Spouses and children of RPI holders are eligible, though RPI holders would not be eligible for food stamps or health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

The bill also includes provisions to add more Customs and Border Protection officers to the nation’s ports; a mandatory, phased-in E-Verify system; a streamlined legalization process for agriculture workers; and requirements that the current visa backlog be eliminated in eight years, ensuring no one in the country illegally achieves legal status before those currently in line.

Wednesday’s proposal could keep alive the immigration-reform effort, which some Democrats said runs the risk of fading quickly after controversies over the situation in Syria and the government shutdown. But the path-to-citizenship provision is likely to be the sticking point between the parties.

Elected officials and analysts have said there are still a variety of scenarios as the end of the House calendar approaches. They include a piecemeal effort that includes McCaul’s bill, a last-ditch agreement by both chambers that includes limited reform measures, or doing nothing at all before the end of the year.

Republicans have accused Democrats of hoping for the latter option and using the issue during the 2014 election year. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told the Tribune last month that because Democrats insist on citizenship, they are clinging to a “poison pill” because the House will not support the measure.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for less legal and illegal migration, called reports that GOP members were still pursuing a vote on immigration unnerving.

“This behind-the-scenes movement by House Republicans on immigration is particularly troubling as key members have indicated they want to conference the House bills with the Senate amnesty bill,” the group said on its website.

Proponents for reform called the legislation a great conversation starter for the lower chamber, though they also cited flaws in the proposal.

In a statement, the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights said it welcomed the intent but took issue with certain parts.

“The border security triggers are an onerous road block on the path to citizenship and reminds the public that the benefits of an immigration reform can only be achieved when immigrant workers come out of the shadows,” the group said.

Wednesday’s announcement came after U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, and Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., on filed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2013 last month. It’s likely that measure will not get a vote, however, because it allows citizenship to be achieved in about six years and eliminates any build up in border enforcement.

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