Immigration bill takes shape behind scenes; debate begins in late May

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Negotiators were closer May 16 to crafting a Senate immigration bill that could be introduced as soon as May 23.

The bill seemed likely to include a legalization plan for most of the nation’s illegal immigrants, but was viewed as far from ideal by the director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other supporters of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Director Kevin Appleby said that among the problems it would make it much more difficult for relatives to join their family members in the United States, making spouses and children wait eight years before they could immigrate legally.

Other provisions would eliminate some categories of family visas, such as those for adult children of legal residents, and cut in half the number of visas available to the parents of adult immigrants.

On May 15 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., postponed for the second time in a week plans to put an immigration bill up for consideration on the Senate floor.

With progress being made on negotiating legislation behind the scenes, Reid said he would wait until May 23 to open floor debate. If a negotiated bill was not ready by that date, debate would be based on the immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2006 as a “place holder.” The 2006 bill died at the end of the 109th Congress in December when it could not be reconciled with a vastly different House bill.

In a May 16 teleconference, Appleby said there have been some improvements over proposals floated recently. For instance, fees associated with the process of legalization for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country have been reduced significantly, he said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who chairs the House immigration subcommittee, said at an April conference that under a White House proposal it would cost a family of five $64,000 to apply for legalization. Appleby said fees have been negotiated to a more reasonable level of perhaps $5,000 per person, payable over the eight-year period it will take for an illegal immigrant to obtain permanent residency under the current proposal.

Although there are various immigration bills on the table, strategists have been trying to craft a version they believe has a chance of passage before bringing it to the floor for debate and for amendments. This system replaces the more typical process of shaping a bill in committee meetings, known as a markup.

Senate negotiators are hoping to create a bill that can draw enough votes of support to avoid having debate shut down in a filibuster. Reid said he expected to begin debate the week of May 23.

Reid planned two weeks of floor debate. The Senate recesses for Memorial Day and will not be in session between May 28 and June 4. Assuming debate opens before the recess, it would resume after the Memorial Day break.

Meanwhile, organizations pushing for a comprehensive immigration bill were urging the public to contact their senators asking for support of broad legislation.

In an earlier interview with Catholic News Service, Appleby said the “bottom line” elements that the USCCB wants to see in legislation include: a viable system for legalizing some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country; a program for temporary workers that protects the rights of employees and includes a realistic process for the workers to apply to stay in the United States; and preservation of the current family-based priority system for legal immigration.

In a May 11 teleconference with representatives of some of the largest organizations in a coalition that includes the USCCB, Frank Sharry, director of the National Immigration Forum, said some of the proposals being considered are “deeply troubling” and don’t meet “the standards of workability.”

Sharry said that among the possible components of a bill that he considers nonstarters are proposals that would cut the number of visas allotted to family immigration; create a point system for visas that is weighted to favor highly skilled workers and disfavor family immigration; and reduce the already inadequate number of slots for new green cards for low-skilled workers.

He said the demands of the U.S. economy create a market for both highly skilled and low-skilled immigrant workers, yet the point system for visas that was being proposed by the White House favored only highly educated workers.

Appleby said the bishops’ conference is “cautiously optimistic” that a workable bill can be negotiated but added that it needs to happen quickly.

“We need to get something before the American public and out of the backrooms,” he said.

Appleby said if Congress continues to dither about a broad-spectrum approach to the nation’s immigration-related problems, “they are really at risk of ceding this issue to state and local governments.”

On the other side of Capitol Hill, House leaders have said they would put immigration legislation to a vote before their August recess. The House Judiciary subcommittee dealing with immigration continues to hold hearings on various aspects of immigration law, often at the rate of two hearings a week.

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