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FAIR Legislative Update August 1, 2011

August 1, 2011

via @TomHolthaus

House Immigration Subcommittee Holds Hearing on HALT Act
On Tuesday, the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement held a hearing on H.R. 2497, the “Hinder the Administration’s Legalization Temptation” or “HALT” Act. The HALT Act, introduced by Judiciary Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), would suspend President Obama’s use of “prosecutorial discretion”—the ability of the executive branch to decline to enforce immigration law against individuals—by preventing him from:

Granting deferred action, parole, or extended voluntary departure to illegal aliens other than those being tried for a crime or acting as a witness at trial, those needed for significant law enforcement or national security purposes, or those whose life is imminently threatened (§§2(b), 2(f));
Waiving the three and ten year bars to admission for aliens who have been illegally present in the U.S. (§2(a));
Cancelling the removal and adjusting the status of illegal aliens ordered deported (§2(c));
Designating additional countries as qualifying for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) (§2(d)); and
Granting work authorization to illegal aliens (§§2(e), 2(g)).
(See FAIR’s Legislative Update, July 18, 2011)

Rep. Smith outlined the need for the HALT Act’s restriction of the Obama Administration’s use of prosecutorial discretion in his opening statement. “What had once been rumor fueled by leaked administration memos is now official Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy as of last month,” he said referencing two June 17th, 2011 memos issued by ICE Director, John Morton, authorizing ICE personnel to decline to enforce immigration laws against certain classes of illegal aliens, such as those who would qualify for amnesty under the failed DREAM Act. (See FAIR’s Legislative Update, June 27, 2011) “Unfortunately, the ICE memos make clear that DHS plans not to use but to abuse these [prosecutorial discretion] powers. If the Obama Administration has its way, millions of illegal immigrants will be able to live and work legally in the United States. This unilateral decision will saddle American communities with the costs of providing education and medical care to illegal immigrants.”

Several witnesses testifying before the Subcommittee agreed with Rep. Smith’s call for limiting the Administration’s authority, expressing concern that the President is bypassing Congress. Senator David Vitter (R-LA), author of the Senate version of the HALT Act (S.1380), asserted in his written testimony: “In 1996, Congress clearly limited the Administration’s parole authority to be used ‘only on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit. However, these memos make clear that DHS plans to abuse these powers to grant mass legalization without any Congressional authorization.” (Testimony of Sen. David Vitter, July 26, 2011) Likewise, Jessica Vaughan, Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, stated that forms of relief granted through the use of prosecutorial discretion is “designed to be used for exceptionally compelling cases, and were not intended as a way for the President, his appointees, or government staff to bypass Congress and its unique authority to make immigration law.” (Testimony of Jessica Vaughan, July 26, 2011)

Chris Crane, President of a national ICE union representing roughly 7,000 employees, also testified in support of the HALT Act, describing the problems caused by the latest string of Morton memos. “The purpose of this policy is to prohibit officers and agents from arresting individuals from certain groups… From an enforcement standpoint, the biggest dilemma facing officers and agents in the field may be how to apply the policy to the hundreds of thousands of aliens encountered each year.” (Testimony of Chris Crane, July 26, 2011) Last summer, the union Crane represents issued a vote of no-confidence in ICE Director John Morton, and former Assistant Director of the ICE Office of Detention and Policy and Planning, Phyllis Coven. (See FAIR Legislative Update, Aug. 9, 2010)

Margaret Stock, the only witness who opposed the HALT Act, alleged, “Our immigration system is dysfunctional and irrational, and the situation only promises to get worse without comprehensive action by Congress.” (Testimony of Margaret Stock, July 26, 2011) “Our nation’s ever more complex and restrictive legal immigration system makes it nearly impossible for most people to immigrate to the United States legally, and provides no means for people to enter or stay in the United States legally in many compelling circumstances,” she added. (Id.) Ms. Stock, an adjunct professor and retired army colonel, also testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the DREAM Act last month.

Economics of Flawed U.S. Visa Systems Face Scrutiny Before Senate
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security held a hearing last week on the economic realities created by our current visa system. “The Economic Imperative for Enacting Immigration Reform” hearing featured testimony from professors, mayors and executives from major corporations, all focusing on the benefits and dangers of the visa programs, especially the H-1B visa program, as it currently functions.

The subcommittee first heard from a representative of Immigration Voice, a non-profit organization representing more than 60,000 skilled immigrants. Dr. Puneet Arora’s testimony encouraged the Senators to continue to facilitate the path to citizenship for current visa holders. (See Testimony of Dr. Puneet Arora, July 26, 2011) He noted that most of his colleagues at Immigration Voice began their journey to green cards on educational or temporary employment visas such as the H-1B. As an immigrant who entered the U.S. on a visa himself, he told the subcommittee members that “all of us already live and work in the United States. Many of us have children that are American citizens by birth.” Dr. Arora continued on to say that he and other visa-holding immigrants “are not asking for thanks. [They] simply want a real place in America, a permanent place.” Dr. Arora advocated for acknowledgment of the contributions visa-holding immigrants make to U.S. society through the greater availability of green cards for these individuals. However, currently only 13% of H-1B visa holders are sponsored by their employers for green cards, suggesting that employers don’t find these employees vital to future operations. (Ron Hira, “The H-1B and L-1 Visa Programs: Out of Control,” Economic Policy Institute, Briefing Paper #280, October 14, 2010)

Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), ranking member of the full Senate Judiciary Committee, also issued a statement before the subcommittee. The Senator voiced his concerns over the fraud and abuse which have unfortunately tainted many U.S. visa programs. (See Statement of the Honorable Chuck Grassley, July 26, 2011) He specifically spoke on the efforts he has taken to reform these programs in order to better benefit American workers, including the “H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2009” (S. 887) which the Senator introduced along with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). The legislation unfortunately did not receive the forward momentum needed in the 111th Congress. Of the bill, Senator Grassley said it would “strengthen the wage requirements, ridding the incentives for companies to hire cheap, foreign labor.” It would also “require companies to attest that they have tried to hire an American before they hire a foreign worker.”

Senator Grassley also argued against the notion of attaching a green card to every graduate diploma, noting that “while it is important to keep the best and the brightest, getting a degree from a U.S. institution should not equate to a fast track to citizenship for all.” He reminded the subcommittee that with the number of international students attending universities in the U.S. continuing to rise, the resources available to American students are diminishing. Automatically including a green card with a degree would only serve to “crowd more and more American students out of a chance to achieve their dreams.”

A later witness, Professor Ronil Hira, Ph.D., P.E., from Rochester Institute of Technology, concurred that Senators Grassley and Durbin had introduced legislation which “solve the most important problems” with the H-1B and L-1 visa programs. (See Testimony of Ronil Hira, Ph.D., P.E.) As a professor of public policy, and someone who has been studying high-skill immigration policy for over a decade, he asserted that the nation’s current visa programs for highly-skilled immigrants is doing more harm than good. Although the purported primary goal of guest worker programs is to bring in foreign workers who complement the U.S. workforce, Hira reported that “instead, loopholes in these programs have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers, with ordinary skills, who directly substitute for, rather than complement, workers already in America. They are clearly displacing American workers and denying them both current and future opportunities.” Because of this fact, he said, the visa “programs have lost legitimacy amongst much of America`s high-tech workforce” who are now running out of opportunities for themselves. Hira encouraged reforms to the visa programs including: labor market tests to ensure there is an actual need for foreign workers; true wages paid by employers so that American workers are not under-cut and foreign workers are not being exploited; limits on the visas issued so that guest workers are only allowed to stay for three years, rather than allow for renewals as is current practice; greater transparency in the visa system, such as requiring Congress or USCIS to publish data on the visa programs; better oversight of the visa programs, including random audits.

Regardless of the nature of the changes suggested, all witnesses seemed to concur that the current U.S. visa system is deeply flawed and in need of repairs in the future in order for the programs to be an economic asset.

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