Politics & Policy

Four Immigration Bills House Republicans Approved While No One Was Looking


House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte speaks after a closed-door meeting on immigration in Washington, on July 10, 2013

Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte speaks after a closed-door meeting on immigration in Washington, on July 10, 2013

What will the House do on immigration? It’s the question all of Washington is asking this week, now that members are back from their July 4 break—and Republican positions on the issue are seemingly all over the place.

House leaders keep saying they’ll schedule votes only on bills that have clear majority support. The legislation that passed the Senate doesn’t. So Republicans are trying to figure out whether there’s more appetite for a single comprehensive proposal that a small group of representatives have been working on for months (but still haven’t released) or for smaller bills that deal with the issue piecemeal. While all the focus was on the Senate in June, the House Judiciary Committee quietly passed four such bills. Comparing them with the Senate version may give an idea of where the House is headed:

1. Skills Visa Act—Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), friend of the tech industry, introduced this bill. Of the four, it’s the one with the most crossover appeal because it would raise the number of visas for highly skilled workers to 155,000; the Senate has set aside between 135,000 and 180,000. It would also allow 55,000 foreign graduates of U.S. graduate schools and 10,000 immigrant entrepreneurs to obtain green cards. The hitch: The Skills Visa Act  decreases the number of green cards available through the State Department’s annual lottery and the pool available for siblings of green-card holders, which some Democrats oppose.

2. Legal Workforce Act—This one also has bipartisan backing. It makes E-Verify mandatory instead of voluntary, as it is now. And it requires employers to start using the system within two years, compared with five under the Senate bill. Big business likes the Legal Workforce Act because it would preempt a patchwork of state rules and because employers wouldn’t be liable for hiring or firing decisions as long as they could show “good faith.” Advocates for immigrants say workers wouldn’t be protected. Employers could use E-Verify before making a hiring decision, instead of after, as they do now. The National Immigration Law Center says that means millions of workers would be erroneously flagged as ineligible to work and would lose wages while the mistakes got sorted out.

3. Agricultural Guestworker Act—Like the Senate’s proposal, it says that farmworkers have to be paid minimum wage (or the prevailing local wage, if that’s higher). Here’s the big difference: According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, the House’s package allows 500,000 annual visas for temporary farm laborers—who can stick around for only 18 months. The Senate would give farmworkers an even sweeter deal than it would give any other group of immigrants: the chance to obtain citizenship after five years. That’s supposed to be a way to keep farmworkers around long term to do jobs Americans don’t want.

4. Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act—The granddaddy of them all, because it deals with Republicans’ big issue: border security. State and local law enforcement would have the power to arrest and detain undocumented immigrants, which is left up to the feds right now. State and local governments would also be able to write their own immigration laws and devise their own ways of civilly and criminally punishing the undocumented. It’d become a federal crime to be found in the country illegally (right now it’s a crime if you’re caught trying to enter). Federal border patrol agents would get body armor and weapons, and they’d be allowed to access federal lands near the border that are controlled by other federal agencies (such as the Department of the Interior) and that are off-limits to them now. All in all, its provisions are much more sweeping than the Senate bill’s, which primarily call for more fencing and more border patrol agents.

There’s one thing missing from all these bills, which would be the Senate’s and the Democrats’ biggest problem with seriously considering any of them: None provide the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country a shot at citizenship.

Hinman is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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