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Alternative Proposals But Not Comprehensive Immigration Reform

America’s history and culture have been shaped by newcomers since its founding, and immigration into the United States has been at the forefront of the nation’s political and social discourses ever since.

Over the course of the 21st century the nation has grappled with whether to admit more immigrants or fewer as well as with the integration of the vast number of immigrants already living within its borders. Also central to the conversation is whether the rights of immigrants and immigration law will be left to the federal government or the states. All of these questions have been difficult for lawmakers to answer as the issue of immigration is both intensely personal and municipal, both local and national.

Now it appears part of the debate will be settled in the courts. On April 25 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case against Arizona’s strict anti-immigration law, SB 1070.

Congress has attempted to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIR) in different variations for the better part of the past decade. The bill has had multiple sponsors from both the Democratic and Republican parties and has sought to fix several serious flaws in the system. Despite bipartisan support and glaring need, the bill has failed to be fully voted on, let alone passed. Throughout multiple sessions of Congress the bill faced virulent opposition from some areas of the country to expanding access to legalized entry and to providing avenues for greater participation in this democracy.

Bills such as the Keep Our Communities Safe Act (HR 1932) and Legal Workforce Act (HR 2885) and other birthright and citizenship acts have been presented to Congress to oppose reform that would admit greater numbers of immigrants. But immigrants are already here. They are already working in stores, tending farms, driving roads and going to school. Ignoring this reality creates conditions for reactionary response at the local level, where interpersonal pressures are more keenly felt.

Federal inaction leaves local communities to grapple with the issue. In 2010 the the state legislature in Arizona passed the now widely debated SB 1070 law, otherwise known as the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. With this bill Arizona ushered in a new area of the immigration debate. It increased the penalties for employing or harboring aliens and made it a crime to be in the state illegally. More important, it empowered state law enforcement officers to attempt to determine an individual’s immigration status during a “lawful stop, detention or arrest” when there is “reasonable suspicion” that the individual is an illegal immigrant. This groundbreaking measure brought the debate from the halls of government and out onto the street, and its fate now rests with the Supreme Court.

Implementation of the most controversial sections—including the requirement of local police to profile criminal suspects for immigration violations—has been put on hold by lower courts since the Obama Administration sued to have the law retracted. The White House argues that the law should be struck down on Constitutional grounds, as immigration policy is set by the federal government. Arizona contends that immigration isn’t exclusively a federal matter and that it had the obligation to enact pertinent, local legislation because federal authorities failed to do their part in controlling illegal entry into the state.

The eventual ruling from the Supreme Court carries an added national significance, as the fate of similar immigration laws in states like Alabama and Georgia will also likely hinge on the high court’s decision.

With upcoming elections at the national and state level, the tension mounts as the nation confronts changing demographics that can impact election outcomes. The Supreme Court’s ruling, expected in June, will not only have far-reaching effects on the future of state efforts to respond to immigration but on resource allocation and budgets as well as on the daily lives of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, particularly women.

The Immigrant Woman’s Experience

Most economic analysis of migration is focused on the male immigrant. The topic of female immigrants and their experience in the labor market is understudied. The numbers of skilled immigrant women are increasing massively, but, according to Monica Boyd and Deanna Pikkov in Gendering Migration, Livelihood and Entitlements: Migrant Women in Canada and the United States, they are disproportionately visible at the bottom rung of stratified service, retail and manufacturing sectors. Men and women frequently enter the United States under different criteria, and migrant women often enter as wives or dependents of men.

Female immigrants face a double disadvantage—that of being a woman and an immigrant. Many also face a third factor: being nonwhite. They are overrepresented in marginal, unregulated and poorly paid jobs where their skills are not recognized or utilized. Female immigrants from poorer countries continue to face higher levels of poverty than female immigrants from Europe and Asia. As these women tend to have less education and fewer skills, they will therefore continue to face a greater disadvantage in the United States. But the overall disadvantage of highly skilled females cannot be as simply explained. To recognize the double disadvantage of immigrant women, we must also acknowledge the sexist structures in our own society.

It is estimated that “globally, a pay-gap between men and women averages 16 percent ... women tend to earn on average 16 percent less than men with an equivalent job. … In high-income countries such as the United States … the gap is often higher.” This global distinction is clearly more burdensome for women who are also disadvantaged by their immigration status.

The share of high-skilled immigrant female workers has grown immensely in the past few years. The number of skilled women emigrants increased by 73 percent between 1990 and 2000. Indeed, as of today, the number of skilled female immigrants to developed nations exceeds that of males. However, these facts are not obvious when viewing our society, as females are clearly discriminated against in the labor market, and immigrant women even more so.

There are a number of reasons why immigration selection procedures favor men over women. Women from the less industrialized nations are less likely to have an education. Women are also frequently responsible for children and other dependents. It therefore is a general notion that women are less likely to be self-sufficient and are therefore less likely to achieve permanent citizen status.

Women who are recruited as nurses to the Unites States can be seen as high-skilled workers, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are employed in high-skilled work. According to Boyd and Pikkov, these women may receive higher pay than in their countries of origin, but they are frequently exploited. They experience discrimination in terms of lower pay, fewer promotions and are more likely to get fired.

Current Congressional Proposals

The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act (HB 3012) was introduced in September 2011 by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) to eliminate the employment-based per-country cap by 2015 and raise the family-sponsored per-country cap from 7 percent to 15 percent. The bill had co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, including Rep. Zoe Lofgran (D-CA), Rep. Luis Guitierres (D-IL), Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). On November 29, 2011, the House passed HR 3012 by a wide margin (389-15) with no amendments. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) placed HR 3012 on hold out of concern that the bill does not protect high-skilled American workers. In December 2011, Senator Grassley offered an amendment to eliminate the family-sponsored per-country limit increase and reduce the employment-based per-country limit to 15 percent, which was rejected. An agreement with Senator Grassley does not appear likely.

Current law caps the employment-based immigrant visa applications to 7 percent of the 140,000 green cards annually issued per individual country, which biases against larger countries like India and China. High-skilled workers from India are highest in demand, with workers from China in second. As of November 2011, more than 120,000 employment-based visa applications were pending (not all high-skilled). As of now, a small country like Iceland or Belgium gets allotted the same number of visas as a large country like China or India, which can mean waits of up to 70 years for a green card. Each year, many of the 140,000 visa applications are “wasted” due to applicants leaving the United States and abandoning their applications.

The current limit for H-1B visas (nonimmigrant visas for temporary employment of foreign workers) is 65,000 a year. Talented workers who want to stay in America often end up choosing to take their talents to competing countries. In a report by the National Foundation for American Policy, almost half the top 50 venture capital-funded American firms were founded or co-founded by immigrants. A Duke University study found that immigrants helped found more than a quarter of the U.S. technology and engineering companies established between 1995 and 2005 (Google, Yahoo, PayPal, etc.). Supporters say that HR 3012 aims to create a “fair and equitable, ‘first come, first-served’ system,” according to Rep. Chaffetz.

Opponents to HR 3012 have expressed a fear of an “influx of cheap foreign labor” and a negative impact on the American economy. U.S. law prohibits American employers from hiring foreign workers, unless there are “insufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available.” HR 3012 does not affect this law but instead would enable and encourage high-skilled foreign workers to contribute to the U.S. economy.

Second, opponents of HR 3012 express the concern that the raised cap on family-sponsored visas (current cap is 480,000 with a floor of 226,000) would result in a large number of unskilled workers and would burden the U.S. employment system. Proponents argue that the bill would reward the patient law-abiding citizens and would “incentivize more people to enter our country through legal means.” HR 3012 does not increase the number of annually issued green cards but creates a process for some immigrants to legally enter America.

Despite the widespread support of the bill among lawmakers, the business community, and the electorate, the brinkmanship and animosity that has plagued this Congress prevents this legislation from becoming a reality.

This was not the first substantial piece of immigration legislation that was stalled by Congressional divisiveness. In 2001 Senators Dick Durbin and Orin Hatch introduced a bill that would come to be known through its later incarnations as the DREAM Act. The Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act would provide a pathway to permanent residency to the illegal aliens who were brought to the United States as children. These young people who graduated from U.S. high schools in good standing, with proficiency in English, having arrived in the United States as minors and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment could obtain temporary residency for a six-year period if they were to complete two years in the military or two years at a four-year institution of higher learning. Within the six-year period they may qualify for permanent residency if they have “acquired a degree from an institution of higher education in the United States or has completed at least two years, in good standing, in a program for a bachelor’s degree or higher degree in the United States” or have “served in the armed services for at least two years and, if discharged, has received an honorable discharge. The bill was either defeated or failed to be brought to a vote more than six times since its inception in 2001, most recently failing to garner a filibuster-proof majority in 2010 despite calls from President Obama to pass the important legislation. As of May 2011 the DREAM Act was tabled by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for reconsideration after previous Republican co-signatories withdrew their support.

In light of the looming election year and the increasing power of Hispanic voters, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) called reporters to his office to announce he would be pushing for the creation of a conservative alternative to the DREAM Act to be introduced to Congress later this year. Considered by many to be a possible vice president selection by Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, Mr. Rubio’s version would allow young, illegal immigrants to remain in the United States on visas through similar means of college education or military conscription but deny them citizenship.

Lawmakers and policy advocates from both sides of the political spectrum object to Mr. Rubio’s plans. Their objections stem from the fact that Mr. Rubio’s plan would create permanent U.S. residents incapable of ever gaining citizenship. Charles A. Gonzales, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, explained it further in a press statement: “If the Rubio Plan bars citizenship it would be the first time in modern history that someone has proposed a law that would permanently prohibit citizenship to one segment of American society.”

Clearly the important debate over immigration in this country is far from over.


  • Learn more about immigration legislation. Visit the websites of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council.
  • Contact your congressional representative at the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or in their district office to call for comprehensive immigration reform that offers opportunity to the skilled and unskilled and that responds to the needs of immigrant women. You can also obtain your representatives’ contact information at www.senate.gov and www.house.gov.
  • Support the National Council of La Raza’s call to hold those responsible for depriving America of the contributions of many talented youth by denying their DREAM.
  • Boycott states that encourage intolerance. Sign the pledge and learn how you can express your opinion with your pocketbook to show that you won’t support any state that institutionalizes racial profiling. Visit www.boycottintolerance.org.
  • Read Resolution 3281, “Welcoming the Migrant to the US” (p. 412); Resolution 3282, “Sons and Daughters of Our Fathers” (p. 420); and Resolution 3283, “US Immigration & Family Unity” (p. 422) in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 2008, for guidance and calls to action on immigration.
Last Updated: 05/29/2012

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