Primer on U.S. Immigration Reform – 2005

Barry Devine
Sunday, January 1, 2006

House Judiciary Committee Chairman, James Sensenbrenner’s Immigration Reform Bill, HR 4437, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, passed the House 239-182 on 12/16/05. Congressman Tom Tancredo from Colorado outlined 30 provisions to further antagonize U.S.- Mexico relations, including building a border fence, making an employer verification program mandatory but without mention of any guest-worker program. This employer verification program is now a pilot program that has been limited to 3,600 employers and their new hires. Not only does the bill provide for massive increases in civil penalties for employers who violate this responsibility, but if it includes verification that all current employees are legally in the U.S., it could total 145 million workers. The legislation increases border patrol agents and equipment, enlists military support in border surveillance and reimburses local law enforcement in border areas for assistance in combating alien smuggling and illegal entry. In addition, criminal penalties for smuggling immigrants would be stiffened, gang members would be inadmissible and mandatory sentences would be established for those who re-enter after deportation. Further, access to immigration courts and judicial review would be severely curtailed. The bill includes the building of a fence in California and Arizona (698 miles), at a cost of $2.2 billion, or $3.2 million per mile.

The end of 2005 has seen unprecedented Congressional activity on immigration issues; a subject which has basically been ignored for twenty years. Illegal immigration to the U.S. from many parts of the world has reached dramatic proportions over these two decades. Perhaps the reason why legislators have chosen to neglect consideration of further legislation on the subject is related to the diversity of interests involved in the issue. Conventional left-right and Democrat-Republican dimensions do not apply. There appears to be a deep-seated anger among voters at government for not stopping illegal migration much earlier. Republicans need to appeal to the business side of the party which depends on immigrant labor. They also need to appeal to their conservative base who want ‘enforcement only’ legislation, but also they wish to appeal to Latinos and Hispanics whose voting power they have been cultivating.

House Republican leaders and the nation’s Business lobby, usually close allies, are battling each other over the issue of immigration. The basic resistance from business is a requirement in the recently passed House Bill that businesses verify that all their workers are in the U.S. legally; this to be accompanied by an increase in penalties for hiring illegal workers. Several industries would be crippled without the cheap, available labor provided by immigrants. Industries such as agriculture, construction, hospitality, food preparation and manufacturing, are very dependent on this population; to say nothing of ‘day labor’ in domestic services. Although U.S. organizations which normally represent these interests have traditionally been strong supporters of Republicans, their interests on this issue vary widely from the rigid, forceful demands of the conservative arm of the G.O.P. In terms of alternative legislation, Democrats tend to be more or less agreeable, depending upon the effects of illegal immigration on their particular electorate, especially those from border states such as California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Although U.S. immigration legislation never mentions specific countries, most of the enforcement aspects of the legislation fall upon Mexicans who desire to enter the U.S. illegally. So why are individuals from Mexico willing to seek employment in the U.S. in the face of the risks and sanctions of crossing the border illegally? A recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center has confirmed that Mexicans do so because they desperately need work, not because they have any desire to live in the U.S. permanently. Ironically, the same actions which make the U.S. Border more difficult to penetrate have made it less attractive for illegal immigrants to risk returning to Mexico, where they would be faced with more difficult circumstances should they plan to return to the U.S.

Remittances from Mexicans working in the U.S. are on track to exceed U.S. $20 billion in 2005. This amount is higher than earnings from petroleum or tourism. Is it any surprise then that Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary, Luis Ernesto Derbez called for U.S. groups to lobby against the bill being considered in Congress. Another issue which has generated great attention by legislators is the ‘Birthright Citizenship’ which currently exists in the U.S. While very few of the world’s industrialized countries grant such citizenship, it is part of the 14th. Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1868. A group of 92 lawmakers who make up the Congressional Caucus on Immigration, has considered legislation to revoke this right. While there is no official tally of the number of children born to illegal immigrants, unofficial estimates range from 100,000 to 350,000. Critics of the current law have stated that 1 in 10 births in the U.S. and 1 in 5 births in California, are to women who have entered the country illegally. This component of the legislation has been deleted so far, but could likely be included in the future as compromises are considered.

The complexity of these problems facing the U.S. are not unique in the world at this time. The U.N. Global Commission on International Migration calculates that the number of people living outside their country of birth has doubled in the last 25 years to 200 million. This number is expected by the Commission to grow significantly because of the impact of Globalization and the growing disparities between rich and poor countries. For more than a decade, several European Countries have had higher proportions of residents born outside their borders than has the U.S. The depth and intensity of problems associated with migrants was seen in France only months ago and more recently in Australia, which has a long history of peaceful government sponsored migration. Illegal entry has been dramatically demonstrated by Sub-Saharan Africans trying to enter the E.U via Spanish enclaves at Ceuta and Melilla, which are surrounded by Morocco.

The estimated number of immigrants in the U.S. as of March, 2005, is 35.2 million, of which 11 million are estimated to be illegal. Among illegal immigrants, approximately 40% arrive with legal papers, but elect to remain in the country after their visa or other temporary paper expires. About 12.1 per cent of the current U.S. population was born in another country, the highest percentage since 1910, according to census figures. Mexico is the largest supplier of immigrants to the U.S., followed by East Asia, which includes several countries. Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, makes the observation that it would be impossible to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, who make up 5 per cent of the U.S. workforce. Hence, many advocates feel that any legislation must include some way to legitimize workers who are already in the U.S. working.

The massive number of illegal immigrants has led to the creation of a complex network of immigration lawyers. With this legal counsel, immigrants have been overwhelming the courts. According to the House Judiciary Committee, petitions for judicial review of deportation orders jumped from 1,654 in 2001, to 10,681 in 2004. Measures included in proposed legislation would end the ‘catch and release’ policy for immigrants other than Mexicans, who are apprehended entering the country illegally, after which they are released with a court date to appear before a judge. Under current proposals, all persons in this category would be detained and the deportation process would be streamlined

A key selling point of NAFTA was that it would create sufficient jobs in Mexico to stem illegal migration. Michael Flynn of the Washington Post, writes that between 1990 and 1995 (NAFTA became effective in 1994), on average 277,000 Mexicans managed to get to the U.S. each year, now after ten years of NAFTA, it is 750,000 this year. Clearly, this agreement has not provided adequate work in Mexico at reasonable remuneration for the labor force. Mexico is not only a sending source for immigrants to the U.S., it is also a transition site for nationals from other countries trying to gain access to the U.S. Mexico now operates 50 detention facilities to detain illegal migrants trying to enter the U.S. via Mexican territory. The Detention Center in Mexico City recently housed 630 detainees from 60 different countries.

Earlier this year Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy produced a bi-partisan bill in the Senate, which has been gaining support. This bill grants Temporary Work Permits for illegals who pay a US $2000 fine, take English lessons and pass a criminal background check. The Senate version is more comprehensive and more in line with the White House’s position than the bill passed in the House. It is expected that the Senate and the House will commence deliberations on a compromise version of the legislation early in 2006.

The Center for Global Justice in San Miguel has developed this summary of legislation on Immigration Reform to enable readers to better understand developments which are expected to unfold in the new year. Certainly these developments will be influenced by the fact that Jim Gilchrist, who started the Minuteman Border Patrol Assistance Program, garnered 25% of the vote in a recent election in California to fill a Congressional vacancy. Candidates for re-election in 2006 could see this as an indication of voter desire with regard to sealing the previously open U.S. border with Mexico. Those of us who reside here in San Miguel de Allende have opportunities to observe the effects of U.S. immigration law on many of our neighbors. Be willing to raise the subject among Mexicans with whom you associate, it could be very informative to learn their perspective on the subject. The Global Justice Center sponsors a Mexico Study Group which meets two hours each two weeks. Minutes of discussion in these sessions are available on the website, Please join the group if study of Mexico’s history, culture and economics interests you.