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A way forward for immigration reform

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Immigration is a divisive subject, probably even more so than health care reform. Look at the state of Arizona, which passed its own immigration law. This is like New Jersey issuing its own passports.  Sounds ridiculous but this is what happens after years of Congressional inaction.

On July 6, 2010, the Department of Justice sued in Federal court, challenging the constitutionality of Arizona’s immigration law. On July 28, 2010, a federal Judge issued a temporary injunction against the law becoming effective on July 29, 2010.  

It’s clear that the federal government has to step in with real immigration law reform before more states follow suit creating legislative chaos. But even though President Obama in his speech on July 1, 2010, to the American University, outlined his plan for immigration reform, without Republican support it is unlikely that legislation will be passed.   

Unfortunately, just at the mention of “immigration,” voices become shrill and tempers flare. Remember Congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst (“You lie”) during President Obama’s address to Congress when the President explained that the new health plan would not cover illegal immigrants?  Lou Dobbs might be gone from CNN but the anti-immigration chorus continues to spew attacks on immigrants, spreading fear and hostility instead of pushing for constructive changes. And a group of Republicans-- some of whom had vigorously supported immigration reform before they flip-flopped on the issue-- are now trying to repeal the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants US citizenship to children born here.  

While everyone acknowledges that the system is broken, there has been little if any political will to pass necessary legislation.  The urgency cannot be exaggerated. Our current immigration law is a patchwork of amendments of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which was the last major overhaul of US immigration law.  The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) of 1996 was a botched attempt that fell short of meaningful reform and created more confusion.  Comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue.

On December 15, 2009, Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, HR 4321, in the House. Because there was no comparable bill in the Senate, the Gutierrez bill has not advanced very far. On March 19, 2010, Senators Charles Schumer (D- NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC)  announced in an editorial in “The Washington Post” the outlines of an immigration reform bill. Lindsey Graham withdrew his support for the bill saying that the health care reform bill “pretty much kill[ed] any chance of immigration reform passing this Senate this year.”  Graham also now supports the repeal of the 14th amendment in an effort to show that he is not soft on illegal immigration.  

On September 28, 2010, Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT),   introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act in the Senate. Now that there are comparable bills in both houses, Congress should act and finally fix this broken system.  Republicans who had supported and sponsored immigration reform bills in the past are now blocking any legislation Democrats propose and many Democrats run scared, afraid that they will lose elections if they even mention the word immigration. Both parties must end the posturing and political games and pass an overhaul of immigration law.   


    


The Menendez bill, similar to the bipartisan outline, is a good framework.  It proposes to end illegal immigration in the US by placing the burden on employers to hire only people who are legal. A verification system for all employers would be in place within five years and employers would have to verify a person’s legal status before hiring them.  Non-compliant employers would face stiff fines and possible criminal prosecution. This coupled with enhanced border security and domestic enforcement would, according to the plan, dramatically reduce illegal immigration.  Also under this bill, the estimated 12 million undocumented already here would be given a path to citizenship, a process that would involve security clearances, fines and paying back taxes.  The bill includes humanitarian sections such as the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which grants legal status to children who have graduated from high school in the US.  Most Americans would probably agree with this and many other ideas in the bill.  

As a practicing immigration lawyer for more than two decades, I believe that it is time to take the anger and misinformation out of the debate and look at the stories of real people to understand how our immigration system needs to be fixed.              

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