Despite increased talk about immigration reform ahead of the 113th U.S. Congress, which convenes in January, actions taken this week by lawmakers in Washington indicate that there is still considerable ground to cover before a deal is reached.
A day after retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, introduced legislation she co-authored that would give legal status to undocumented minors intent on serving in the military or attending college, Hispanic members of Congress laid out their own goals for reform.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, chaired by U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, on Wednesday released "One Nation: Principles on Immigration Reform and Our Commitment to the American Dream," a nine-point synopsis of what it said are the issues that need to be addressed.
Like Hutchison’s bill, it pushes for the country’s undocumented immigrants — which it estimates at 11 million — to register with the federal government, submit to fingerprinting and background checks, and learn English and civics. But it also calls for a system that allows them to “pay taxes and contribute fully and legally to our economy and eventually earn a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.”
The outline also calls for Congress to build on the “extraordinary” success of President Obama’s deferred action policy, which the caucus said affects immigrants who are “Americans but for a piece of paper.”
Hutchison stressed this week that her proposal, dubbed the Achieve Act and co-authored by U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl. R-Ariz., would not create a path to citizenship. Instead it would create a new visa system for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country before they were 14 and have committed no major crimes. Approved applicants would be required to meet with Department of Homeland Security officials every six months and would not be eligible for student loans or other public assistance programs. Applicants must also have English proficiency and knowledge of the U.S. government.
“We have attempted to accommodate those with the ambition to pursue a useful educational degree, or serve in the U.S. military,” the senators said in a joint statement. “Moreover, our proposal prohibits the awarding of additional federal benefits."
The dueling proposals highlight major differences on what the parties see as a viable overhaul of the country’s immigration system.
The Hutchison-Kyl legislation doesn't mention how it would work with the deferred action policy, which grants approved applicants a renewable two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings.
Responding directly to the Hutchison proposal, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the Hispanic caucus, said the legislation does little to address the concerns of the burgeoning Latino population. Analysts say the demographic reflected its dismay with Republicans on Election Day by supporting Obama's re-election in large numbers.
“The Achieve Act doesn’t achieve the dream of young people who only know America as their home and want a chance to earn their way to permanent residency,” Menendez said in a prepared statement. “Republicans must embrace an earned path to citizenship if they want to address the Republican Party’s issues with the Latino electorate — and this bill doesn’t achieve that goal.”
U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Edinburg, who will replace Gonzalez as chairman of the Hispanic caucus for the next session of Congress, said in a written statement that it was “shameful” that immigrant students here on specialty visas cannot petition for their citizenship for the family members.
“We are a better country and a stronger country because of immigrants,” he said. “Immigrants are our past, and they are our future.”
Brad Bailey, the CEO of The Texas Immigration Solution, which advocates for reform with a guest-worker program, lauded Hutchison and Kyl's proposal as a positive step forward.
“The Achieve Act contains some of the key elements of a successful immigration overhaul,” he said. “First, it offers an opportunity for ‘legal status’ for eligible young undocumented immigrants who intend on pursuing a college degree or commit to serve in the U.S. military. Second, it respects the rule of law and has a number of important requirements to become eligible for enrollment into the program.”
Bailey added, however, that he would also like to see Republicans move forward on a guest-worker program.
United We Dream, an immigrants rights group advocating for comprehensive reform whose affiliates include the University Leadership Initiative based at the University of Texas at Austin, issued a harsh rebuke of the Achieve Act.
“This proposal from some in the Republican Party — the same party that killed the DREAM Act in 2010, pushed ‘self-deportation,’ and supported inhumane policies that divide our families and our communities — is a cynical political gesture,” the group said in a prepared statement.
The DREAM Act would create a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country before age 16, have lived here at least five years, have graduated high school or earned a GED, or have been accepted to a college or university.
Members of the Hispanic caucus on Wednesday reiterated a desire to compromise, but also appear poised to stand their ground until Republicans embrace more components of the DREAM Act.
“Let me be clear about this — we want to work with Republicans to find common ground, help the American people, and help America’s immigrants,” said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., the chairman of the caucus' Immigration Task Force. “But common ground is based on common decency, and common sense.”