Senate Passes Immigration Bill; A Critical Step toward Needed Reform
By Helly Lee
UPDATE: On October 2, 2013, H.R. 15, "The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act" was introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill outlines a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and combines two bipartisan proposals: H.R. 1417, the House Homeland Security Committee “Border Security Results Act “ and H.R. 744, the Senate “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” While the newly introduced H.R. 15 includes provisions from S.744, it does not include the Corker-Hoeven amendment on additional border enforcement measures voted into the Senate immigration bill. Four other piecemeal immigration bills have been introduced in the House. The House may bring up one or more of these bills as soon as late October or November.
Yesterday, the Senate voted and passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) by a bipartisan vote of 68-32. Vice President Joe Biden – who typically only participates in critical legislative discussions -- presided over the historic vote in the Senate to pass an immigration bill that provides a path to citizenship for nearly 11 million immigrants. While we have deep concerns about some portions of the bill, it is a critical step in the effort to reform our immigration system.
S. 744 gives millions of immigrants the opportunity to obtain Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, which will allow them to live, study, and work without fear of deportation and ultimately provide a path to citizenship. Once lawfully present, immigrant workers can come out of the shadows, making them less vulnerable to workplace violations and wage theft and better allowing them to contribute to their communities and the economy. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that enacting S.744 would reduce the federal deficit by $197 billion between 2014–2023, and by about $700 billion between 2024–2033. Immigrants have long been significant contributors—both to our economy and the growth and culture of our nation.
The path to citizenship under the Senate bill would not be simple, spanning at least 13 years and including various fees and penalty fines. One of CLASP’s major concerns is that the bill sharply limits aspiring citizens’ access to affordable health care through Medicaid or premium subsidies, as well as nutrition assistance and other key safety net programs. Because time in RPI status will not count toward the existing 5-year waiting period for Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR) to access benefits, many immigrants would have to wait 15 years before being eligible for these critical income and work supports if they are not able to naturalize within 13 years. For any family, 15 years is a long time to go without access to health care or a safety net that offers support in times of economic uncertainty. It is particularly egregious that immigrants will be working and paying taxes for these programs, but will not have access to them in times of need.
As the bill was debated in committee and on the Senate floor, numerous efforts were made to improve access to supports for low-income immigrants. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) fought to ensure that all taxpayers have access to the programs that their taxes support. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) filed amendments to remove barriers to vital health and economic support programs for intimate partner violence and reduce the number of years registered provisional immigrants (RPIs) must wait before they can access taxpayer-supported safety net programs. These are just a couple of the many amendments that would have strengthened the bill to better support aspiring citizens.
However, many provisions aimed at strengthening the bill were not considered because of the adoption earlier this week of the Corker-Hoeven amendment which focused the debate around additional border resources and essentially closed off further consideration of other amendments. In a time when the nation faces deep sequester cuts to essential programs, the expensive Corker-Hoeven amendment doubles the number of border agents and assigns excessive resources to border enforcement.
In spite of our concerns about the many hurdles low-income immigrants will face on the path to citizenship, and the excessive spending on border enforcement, CLASP joins many immigrant and anti-poverty advocacy groups in recognizing the historical significance and value of the Senate passing this bill; it is a key step towards badly needed immigration reform. As challenging as the Senate process was, it will be even more difficult to get a balanced and comprehensive immigration reform package through the House of Representatives.
As immigration bills move through the House, CLASP, along with other immigrant rights and anti-poverty advocates, will continue to work toward meaningful reform of our broken immigration system.
See CLASP's New Infographic, The (S.744) Path to Citizenship.