Late last night, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to move comprehensive immigration forward to the floor of the Senate after a long and somewhat contentious five-day markup. Three Republicans joined 10 Democrats in voting to move the bill forward. Five Senators – all Republicans – voted against the measure. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who had been heavily courted by supporters of immigration reform, voted in favor of the bill.
The Judiciary Committee considered more than 200 amendments over the course of the five-day markup, adopting 141, but the Gang of 8 that crafted the bill were able to hold together and fend off major changes to the legislation.
Key Components of the bill
The key components of the bipartisan compromise bill remain the same:
Increased border security
The legislation calls for $3 billion to beef up border security, which includes fortifying fences, staffing up patrols and acquiring surveillance technology – including drones and drone pilots, according to the summary.
It also requires constant surveillance of high-risk border areas and demands that border officers turn back at least 90 percent of those who attempt illegal border crossings each year.
Path to legal residency
The legislation provides a path to legal residency for some of the illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. Only illegal immigrants who arrived before December 31, 2011 would be eligible for legal residency.
For those eligible, the bill requires an undocumented immigrant to pay a penalty of up to $500 and show that they have paid taxes since they arrived in this country. The path to legal residency would be barred for those who have committed a felony or three or more misdemeanors.
After 10 years as a “provisional” resident, an applicant could apply for lawful permanent residency with the payment of a $1,000 fee.
The bill also creates a new legal status: a blue card. The blue card would be available to agricultural workers who are currently in the country illegally, and have worked in the American agricultural industry for at least 100 days over the last two years.
Applicants would be required to pay a $400 fee, show they have paid their taxes and have not committed a crime. The bill caps the blue cards at about 112,000 for the first five years.
Blue card holders would be eligible for permanent legal residency in five years, half the time of other adult immigrants in the country illegally.
Key additions made in committee
The most significant changes in the legislation came in the H-1B visa arena. In order to win the vote of Senator Hatch, the committee adopted amendments that dramatically increased the caps for high-skilled visas, regardless of domestic economic conditions, as well as easing recruitment standards on American businesses who utilize very few foreign workers.
Other changes relating to H-1B visas included the creation of a toll-free hotline for American workers to lodge complaints against employers violating the terms of the H-1B program as well as the doubling of the application fee (from $500 to $1,000).
What didn't make the cut
Most of the amendments offered by immigration reform opponents were defeated in committee. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), two of the leading opponents of the bill, offered a slew of amendments – the overwhelming majority of which failed. Many amendments defeated would have added additional triggers before legalizing current illegal immigrants.
The most discussed omission from the committee-approved bill was an amendment being pushed by Judiciary Chair Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that would have allowed same-sex couples the same ability to sponsor their spouses for green cards as is afforded opposite-sex couples. Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have said they would drop their support for the bill if it included extending these rights to gay Americans. In the end, Leahy offered, but then withdrew his amendment, after several of his Democratic colleagues on the committee – including Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and even Al Franken (D-MN) – had expressed concerns the amendment could lead to the unraveling of the coalition needed to pass the bill out of the Senate.
The road ahead
Comprehensive reform supporters in the Senate expressed optimism after the committee vote. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told reporters they believed that the bill could pick up 70 votes on the Senate floor.
The full Senate could take up immigration reform as early as when it returns from the Memorial Day recess.
The road ahead in the House is much murkier. A bipartisan group in the House has also been working on putting together its own comprehensive package due out in coming weeks – one that will be more conservative than the bill the Senate is considering. The future of this more conservative bill remains uncertain, as House leaders urge a deliberative, incremental approach. Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform hope that a strong vote out of the Senate (70+ voting for it) will help apply pressure to House members to follow suit.
For more information
Please reach out to McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies for more information regarding immigration reform.
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McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies LLC
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