Amidst Government Shutdown, House Introduces a New Immigration Bill

Posted on Wed, Oct 16, 2013 at 15:42 pm

The government shutdown isn’t the only pressing issue for Congress—immigration reform has remained a hot topic among the American people and politicians, many of whom urgently demand changes in U.S. immigration policy. When Senate bill S. 744 passed this spring it was an important milestone, but now all eyes are on the House as the country looks to our representatives to take the next step toward reforming our broken system.

The shutdown itself poses numerous challenges for immigrants. The unrelenting prioritization of arrests and deportations yet again highlights the need for a reformed immigration system. Immigration and Customs enforcement operations continue to ensure the government sets records for deportations, at a rate of over 1,100 a day. The blackout of E-Verify, the online government service that verifies one’s legal status to work in the U.S., is inhibiting people’s ability to obtain employment and take care of their families. And the decrease to 30 percent of staff at the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which is responsible for running our immigration courts, is resulting in delays in court proceedings and longer periods of detention for immigrants.

On October 2, 2013, House Democrats introduced their own immigration reform bill, H.R. 15, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” H.R. 15’s titles address border security, immigrant visas, interior enforcement, and reforms to nonimmigrant visa programs. It largely resembles the “Gang of Eight” bill, S. 744, which passed the Senate in June and would improve the refugee and asylum systems with many provisions that HIAS supports.

Sponsors Rep. Joe Garcia (D-FL), Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV), Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-TX), and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) drafted H.R. 15 with a few notable differences from S. 744. Rather than include the Senate-passed Corker-Hoeven Amendment, the House bill substitutes border security provisions from Rep. Michael McCaul’s (R-TX) bipartisan Border Security Results Act of 2013. Additionally, H.R. 15 doesn't include a plan to build more border fencing or increase security with thousands of additional border patrol agents, but rather sets specific goals for border enforcement.

But the new House bill also shares many promising similarities to S. 744. H.R. 15 would create a Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, which would allow many undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship after 13 years and after paying taxes, passing background checks, and maintaining employment. The bill also would provide sufficient visas to erase the current backlog of family and employment-based visa applicants within the next 7 years. H.R. 15 addresses immigrant detention by limiting the use of solitary confinement, including barring its use with children and the seriously mentally ill and mandating prompt custody determinations and bond hearings. Finally, H.R. 15 would exclude or change a number of family-based immigration programs and create a new merit system based on points accrued through education, employment, and family ties. These provisions, among others in the bill, would contribute to a more fair and efficient immigration system.

Like S. 744, H.R. 15 would implement much needed reforms to the refugee and asylum systems, such as the repeal of the one-year filing deadline that causes excessive hardship for asylum seekers and the elimination of provisions that separate asylees and refugees from close family members. The bill would extend and improve the Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa programs, allowing individuals who face danger as a result of their work for the American government to continue to seek safety in the United States. H.R. 15 also includes provisions that would allow certain refugee children to join their parents in the United States and remedy gaps in current law that can permanently separate families.

Importantly for HIAS and our ongoing advocacy efforts on the Lautenberg Amendment, H.R. 15 would preserve Senator Lautenberg’s legacy of protecting the most vulnerable, including persecuted religious minorities, while creating new opportunities for other persecuted groups to receive protection in the United States. If enacted into law, H.R. 15 would establish an Office of Citizenship and New Americans, which would help provide elderly refugees with greater access to naturalization and would elevate the prioritization of refugee integration.

Even if H.R. 15 is not passed in the House, the bill represents an effort to keep momentum going toward achieving immigration reform—something the American public clearly favors. Even throughout the government shutdown, immigration reform hasn’t lost its flame: On October 5th, the National Day of Dignity and Respect, people of faith throughout the country joined over 160 rallies, marches, vigils, and pilgrimages across 39 states. And on October 8th, thousands marched in Washington to demand action, emphasizing the importance of including a pathway to citizenship for immigrants.

Many are still fighting, and hope for comprehensive immigration reform remains strong.

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