Comprehensive Immigration Reform

It has been a long, hot summer in Washington, D.C., as a House-Senate conference committee tries to craft an immigration compromise, with politicians from both parties facing elections in the fall. Immigration is squarely a political issue and one of the most divisive issues confronting society today. The news media have bombarded us with stories about illegal immigration, the need to secure our borders and the creation of a guest worker program.

Consideration for your fellow man; Wouldn’t hurt anybody, sure fits in with my plan; Over the border, there lies the promised land

So don’t tell anybody what I wanna do; If they find out you know that they will never let me through.

It’s no fun being an illegal alien.

From the song Illegal Alien by Genesis (1983)

It has been a long, hot summer in Washington, D.C., as a House-Senate conference committee tries to craft an immigration compromise, with politicians from both parties facing elections in the fall. Immigration is squarely a political issue and one of the most divisive issues confronting society today. The news media have bombarded us with stories about illegal immigration, the need to secure our borders and the creation of a guest worker program.

Is this déjà vu all over again? All we have to do is look back 20 years and examine the failed efforts of Congress to control undocumented immigration by passing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of November 6, 1986 (“IRCA,” Public Law 99-603).

IRCA was an attempt to rein in illegal immigration through heightened workplace enforcement and border security combined with legalization of most undocumented aliens already in the country. This comprehensive immigration legislation created sanctions prohibiting employers from knowingly hiring, recruiting or referring for a fee aliens not authorized to work in the United States and increased enforcement at U.S. borders. It also created a new classification of “seasonal agricultural worker” and provisions for the legalization of certain such workers, and authorized legalization for certain other aliens.

According to the Immigration Policy Center, IRCA failed to offer a solution to the problem of illegal immigration because (1) it did not expand avenues for legal immigration to match the U.S. economy’s continued demand for immigrant workers; (2) it did not create an effective system through which employers could verify that their employees are authorized to work in the United States; and (3) the employer sanctions provisions of the bill were weakly enforced.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform

On May 25, 2006, the U.S. Senate approved the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S. 2611), by a 62 to 36 vote. This version does not look anything like the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437) passed by the House on December 16, 2005, by a vote of 239 to 182, which would criminalize 12 million undocumented immigrants unlawfully present in this country. The Senate version was almost derailed by an amendment sponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), which would have required the Department of Homeland Security to certify that U.S. borders are secure and new detention facilities are fully operational before the guest worker and legalization programs could take effect. (For a brief comparison of some of the provisions of the House and Senate versions, see pp. 12-13.)

As of early May 2006, 43 states had introduced more than 460 bills related to immigration, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, according to the same survey only 19 measures had been enacted nationwide, and just 12 of them imposed significant restrictions on illegal immigrants. When it appeared that Congress was not going to act fast enough, the Georgia General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act by a 119 to 49 vote and Gov. Sonny Perdue signed this significant bill into law on April 17, 2006.

The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act

The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act requires that a contractor or subcontractor doing business with any state or local government agency in Georgia use a federal work authorization program to verify the legal status of all newly hired employees. The referenced federal work authorization program is to be implemented and operated by the United States Department of Homeland Security. In addition, this new law authorizes the state to enter into an agreement with the federal government to have certain Georgia law enforcement officers trained to enforce immigration laws. It also requires that any illegal immigrant arrested and jailed for a felony or DUI offense be reported to federal immigration authorities. It discourages businesses from hiring illegal immigrants by prohibiting employers from receiving state income tax benefits if they hire undocumented workers and requiring that a six-percent state income tax be withheld from the wages of an illegal immigrant when an IRS form 1099 has been filed. The new law also establishes penalties for human trafficking and regulates the notarios (non-attorneys who offer immigration assistance services) industry. And last, but not least, it requires all state and local government agencies to verify the legal status of any adult applying for taxpayer-provided benefits, with some exceptions. The earliest effective date for Georgia’s new 14-page immigration law is July 1, 2007.

According to the Migration Policy Institute and the Pew Hispanic Center, there was a 233-percent increase in Georgia’s foreign-born population from 1990 to 2000 and an estimated 350,000 illegal immigrants were in the state in 2004. It remains to be seen whether the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act can withstand a constitutional challenge, as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nation’s leading Latino legal organization, is preparing for potential litigation.

Worksite Enforcement

Another phenomenon that has made headlines recently is the U.S. government’s renewed interest in worksite enforcement. In April, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents apprehended 1,187 illegal workers in 26 states at plants owned by Houston-based IFCO Systems North America, the nation’s largest pallet supply company. The ICE agents also arrested seven current and former IFCO supervisors. On May 9, 2006, ICE agents arrested four supervisors of Fischer Homes Incorporated and 76 illegal alien workers at Fischer Homes construction sites in Kentucky. Also in May, ICE agents in Missouri arrested the owner of two Mexican restaurants in Missouri and Iowa on criminal charges of knowingly hiring illegal aliens. Twenty-one illegal aliens were arrested during the execution of search warrants on the restaurants. An investigation revealed that many of the employees had not been asked to complete any paperwork or provide documentation to work at the restaurants.

The Chinese owner of Golden China Buffet in Louisville, Kentucky, and eight illegal alien workers that he was housing and transporting to and from work were arrested on May 10, 2006. On May 11, 2006, Hui Guo, a lawful permanent resident alien and citizen of China, pleaded guilty in Albany, New York, to one count of hiring and harboring illegal aliens in connection with two Dragon Buffet chain restaurants he operated in the Albany area. In late May, ICE agents arrested five illegal aliens from Mexico at a Wichita, Kansas Cessna plant on immigration violations. It appears that the Department of Homeland Security is expanding its efforts to target employers who hire illegal immigrants.

On June 5, 2006, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision in Mohawk Industries v. Williams, a class action brought against Georgia carpet manufacturer Mohawk Industries under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The case started in 2004, when four hourly employees of Mohawk Industries filed suit in federal court in Georgia, claiming that the hiring of undocumented immigrants depressed their wages and cost them thousands of dollars in workers’ compensation. Mohawk Industries, the nation’s second-largest manufacturer of rugs and carpeting, employs more than 30,000 people and has been a fixture in northwest Georgia for 120 years. While the Court rejected the racketeering angle and ordered the Eleventh Circuit to reconsider the case in light of another opinion in another RICO case, Mohawk Industries demonstrates the manner in which immigration issues are quickly becoming business litigation issues as well.


H-1B Blackout

To make matters even more challenging, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on June 1, 2006 that it had met, in less than two months, the 65,000 H-1B congressionally mandated cap for the 2007 fiscal year. The H-1B visa is utilized by U.S. businesses and other organizations to employ international workers in specialty occupations that require particular expertise. Typical H-1B occupations include scientists, architects, engineers, systems analysts, accountants, doctors and college professors. The cap means that companies needing workers with critical skills will have to wait more than a year before they can obtain this needed expertise. This blackout on H-1B visas and the lack of urgency in Congress in deciding how to address the skilled labor force shortage continues to affect U.S. global competitiveness.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Since our nation’s founding, we have been a country of immigrants, striving to attract the best and the brightest from around the world to help shape the diverse culture we proudly call America. Our immigration history has been colorful and ever changing as discussed in detail in the immigration article in the Summer 2005 issue of Trust The Leaders.

In March of this year, Bill Gates told leaders of both major political parties that immigration is Microsoft’s number one issue in Washington. “If we hope to maintain our economic and intellectual leadership in the U.S., we must renew this commitment,” Gates said in a letter to lawmakers. “Unless there is reform, American competitiveness will suffer as other countries benefit from the international talent that U.S. employers cannot hire or retain.”

According to the Senate version of immigration reform, if there is to be legalization of illegal immigrants already in the U.S., an estimated 8 million people would qualify and be put on a path to citizenship. According to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is chief co-sponsor of the Senate bill along with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), legalization is really the only viable solution and the status quo is not acceptable. “You can’t send them back, so you have to find a way to give them a very tough path to citizenship,” says McCain. Sen. McCain’s message to the House is clear: “Our effort and our dedication and our commitment to you is we will sit down and negotiate in good faith to try to resolve an issue that all of you are in total agreement must be resolved. And we will listen to you, and we hope you will listen to us with respect, and we know we can work it out.”

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), however, believes that the majority of Americans oppose the amnesty approach found in the Senate legislation. In a letter to his constituents dated June 5, 2006, Chambliss states: “It has been tried in the past and did not work, and this bill repeats those mistakes of the past with far-reaching implications on future generations. If we do not secure the border then we have accomplished nothing.”

While many Americans are opposed to granting citizenship to those who have broken the law to be here, they are reluctant to demand deportation. Proponents of competing Senate and House versions of an immigration bill will battle it out on the Hill in an attempt to find common ground. The resulting compromise will shape the future of our country for many years to come.

A Comparison of Pending U.S. House and Senate Immigration Legislation

Temporary Worker Program

HOUSE VERSION No such provision.
SENATE VERSION Creates a temporary worker program for 200,000 new temporary “essential” workers per year with a potential path to legal permanent residence. Reforms the Agricultural Worker Program and makes available an earned legalization program for 1.5 million farm workers.

Path to Legal Status and Citizenship for Undocumented Immigrants Currently in the United States

HOUSE VERSION No such provision.
SENATE VERSION Allows undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least five years prior to April 5, 2006 to remain, continue working and eventually become legal permanent residents (LPR) if they pay a $2,000 fine, meet English and civics requirements, pass background checks and pay taxes owed. After five years as LPR they can apply for citizenship. Confers upon undocumented immigrants in the U.S. less than five years but more than two years “Deferred Mandatory Departure” status, where they must leave within three years, apply for readmission and return. Requires those in the country illegally for less than two years to leave.

Path to Legal Status for Undocumented High School Students

HOUSE VERSION No such provision
SENATE VERSION Students who enter the U.S. before age 16 and are present for five years preceding the date of enactment, and who have graduated from high school (or obtained a GED), can apply for six-year conditional status. Within those six years, if they graduate from college or complete two years in a degree program, or serve in the Armed Forces, the conditional status becomes permanent status.

Worksite Enforcement

HOUSE VERSION Requires employers to participate in an electronic employment eligibility verification system within three to six years. Increases maximum fines for employers of illegal workers from the current $10,000 to $40,000 per violation and establishes prison sentences of up to 30 years for repeat offenders.
SENATE VERSION Also requires employers and subcontractors to use an electronic system, but within 18 months, to verify the legal status of new hires. Increases the maximum fines for hiring undocumented workers to $20,000 for each worker and imposes jail time for repeat offenders.

Border Security

HOUSE VERSION Requires building “at least two layers of reinforced fencing” along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
SENATE VERSION Authorizes 370 miles of new triple-layered fencing plus 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Criminal Penalties

HOUSE VERSION Makes illegal presence in the U.S. a felony. Individuals who help illegal immigrants to enter or stay in the country would also face criminal penalties.
SENATE VERSION Establishes mandatory sentences for smuggling illegal immigrants and for reentering the U.S. illegally after deportation.

Border Patrol

HOUSE VERSION Provides for hiring more Border Patrol agents right away. Nearly 12,000 agents currently stand guard. Hires at least 250 active-duty port-of-entry inspectors for each of the next three years.
SENATE VERSION Authorizes the hiring of an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents this year and adds another 14,000 agents to the current force by 2011. Limits National Guard tours of duty on the U.S.-Mexico border to 21 days.


HOUSE VERSION Requires mandatory detention for all non-Mexican illegal immigrants arrested at ports of entry or at land and sea borders.
SENATE VERSION Authorizes additional detention facilities for apprehended illegal immigrants.


HOUSE VERSION Makes a drunk driving conviction a deportable offense.
SENATE VERSION Illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors would be deported no matter how long they have been in the U.S.

Skilled Worker Immigration Reforms

HOUSE VERSION No such provisions.
SENATE VERSION Increases the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers from 65,000 to 115,000 annually, beginning in 2007. Immigrants with certain advanced degrees would not be subject to the caps.

Employment Visa Backlog Relief

HOUSE VERSION No such provisions. Eliminates the Diversity Visa Lottery Program.
SENATE VERSION Increases the employment-based cap for immigrant visas to 450,000 per year for a 10-year period, adding 310,000 new immigrant visas per year.


HOUSE VERSION No such provision.
SENATE VERSION Delays until June 1, 2009 a requirement that Americans reentering the U.S. after cruises or short visits to Canada and Mexico show a passport or high-tech identification card.

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