White House Immigration Summit Now Set for June 17

The White House has announced that an immigration summit with key lawmakers will take place on June 17.

The meeting, originally scheduled for June 8 but postponed due to the President's travel schedule, is intended to include a small group discussion to identify areas of agreement and efforts needed to achieve broader consensus.

Meanwhile, Congress continues to examine immigration issues through hearings. These recent activities suggest that immigration has moved high on the legislative and policy agenda, though the timing of and prospects for passage of a comprehensive reform bill remain uncertain.

Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Uniting American Families Act (S. 424), sponsored by Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The bill would extend spousal immigration benefits to qualifying permanent partners – including same-sex partners – of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.

Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-NY) introduced a companion bill, H.R. 1024, in the House of Representatives. Additionally, several other immigration bills have been introduced during the 111th Congress (2009-2010). These are discussed below.

Comprehensive Reform and Legalization

The term "comprehensive immigration reform" has become part of the immigration lexicon in the last several years, and signifies a legislative package that deals with legalization of the current undocumented population, border and worksite enforcement, and admission of new workers.

Thus far in the 111th Congress, no one has introduced a comprehensive immigration bill that would be the basis for debate and legislative action. On January 6, 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced a "placeholder" bill, outlining some very broad principles of immigration reform. On the following day, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) introduced the Save America Comprehensive Immigration Act of 2009 (H.R. 264), which seeks to strengthen border control, legalize undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for five years or more, and lessen the immigration consequences of some criminal convictions, among other provisions. The House has not taken any action on H.R. 264.

Other bills dealing with legalization include the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2009 (DREAM Act) (S.729/H.R. 1751), introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) in the Senate and House respectively. The DREAM Act would provide a path to permanent residence for those who came into the United States as children and who are either accepted into a college or university or who enlist in the armed forces. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Berman also introduced the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act of 2009 (AgJOBS) (S. 1038/H.R. 2414) in the Senate and House respectively. As the name suggests, AgJOBS would provide legalization for some agricultural workers. While the DREAM Act and AgJOBS enjoy the strong support of proponents of comprehensive reform, the prevailing view is that Congress will not take any action on these bills except as part of the comprehensive reform debate.

Employment-Based and Family-Based Immigration

Several recently-introduced bills address visa availability. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the Reuniting Families Act (S. 1085) to facilitate family-based immigration by making visas available for family members of permanent residents who have been subject to lengthy waits because of existing quotas. S. 1085 also would recapture approximately 400,000 unused family-based and employment-based visas from previous years to reduce the immigration backlog.

In addition, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced H.R. 1791, the Stopping Trained in America Ph.D.s from Leaving the Economy Act of 2009 (STAPLE Act), which would ease nonimmigrant and immigrant visa restrictions for foreign students who have earned a Ph.D. in the United States. Rep. Bart Stupak introduced the Save Our Small and Seasonal Business Act of 2009 (H.R. 1136), which would exempt returning H-2B temporary workers from the 66,000 annual numerical quota. Rep. Berman introduced H.R. 1785, the Arts Require Timely Service Act (ARTS Act), which would require faster adjudication under the O and P visa categories.

Not all pending bills are favorable to employment-based immigration. As we have reported previously, Sen. Durbin, along with co-sponsor Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), introduced the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act (S. 887), which would impose significant new obligations on employers of H-1B and L-1 workers, and increase the authority of the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to conduct investigations and audits of H-1B and L-1 employers and impose penalties for violations.

Immigration Enforcement

Several bills have been introduced to address immigration enforcement. Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA) introduced the Loophole Elimination and Verification Enforcement Act ("LEAVE Act") (H.R. 994). The LEAVE Act would, among other things, impose penalties for assisting illegal border crossing, increase the term of imprisonment for human smuggling, mandate employers' participation in the E-Verify program, prohibit undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses, and prevent children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants from obtaining U.S. citizenship.

Specific to enforcement at the worksite is the New Employee Verification Act (NEVA) (H.R. 202, co-sponsored by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). NEVA would create a dual-tracked system under which employers could choose to participate in an improved E-Verify program or an enhanced program that captures an employee's biometric data. In addition, Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) introduced the Illegal Immigration Enforcement and Social Security Protection Act of 2009 (H.R. 9. H.R. 98 would require all employees to have a machine-readable card that employers could swipe to ascertain identity and work authorization.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA) has introduced several worksite enforcement bills. The Employment Eligibility Verification and Anti-Identity Theft Act (H.R. 137) would require employers to take certain actions upon learning that an employee's name and Social Security number do not match the government's records. Rep. Gallegly also introduced two bills, H.R. 124 and H.R. 138, to require Executive and Legislative Branch contractors to use the E-Verify system to confirm the employment eligibility of their workforce. The Gallegly bills would codify regulations that were promulgated during the Bush Administration and that are currently the subjects of federal lawsuits. Finally, Rep. Kent Calvert (R-CA) introduced H.R. 19, which offers a simpler approach by re-authorizing E-Verify indefinitely and mandating E-Verify participation.

Timing of Legislative Action

The timing and likelihood of comprehensive immigration reform are unclear at this point. Some observers believe that the political landscape is favorable, especially for a unified approach by the White House and leadership in the House and Senate. Moreover, the key factions of organized labor also appear to be in agreement and supportive of reform. However, other commentators point out that the economic downturn and poor job market will dissuade most elected officials from having to justify any legislation to bring additional workers into the U.S. economy.

Congress cannot ignore immigration completely this year, however. Several programs that are of great importance to various interests are set to expire on September 30. They are the E-Verify program; the Conrad 30 program, which brings physicians to underserved areas; the regional immigrant investor program, which provides permanent residence to foreign nationals who invest and create jobs in designated areas of the United States; and the immigrant visa category for religious workers. It is often the case that, when Congress begins to look at narrow immigration issues, other immigration-related issues surface as well. The House Judiciary Committee has indicated that it would consider temporary extension of E-Verify and possibly one or more of the other expiring programs. Thus far, however, the committee has not yet taken any action.

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