Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Tracking the Status of Congressional Bills (Updated July 12)

Immigration_ReformOK, I admit it. As a student, I loved the animated cartoon, “I’m Just a Bill [and I’m Sitting Here on Capitol Hill],” by Schoolhouse Rock. (See it on YouTube or here, if you’re in China). In this post, I’d like to take a similar approach to map out the long voyage that a CIR bill would actually need to complete to become law.

How a Bill Becomes Law--source--american-government-and-politics-in-the-information-age


In short, for a CIR bill to become law, it will need to be passed with identical language by both houses of Congress–the House of Representatives and  the Senate. It will then need to be signed into law by President Obama. So what’s happening now?

(Updates are in blue).


The Senate has passed S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (BSEOIMA). This bill was sponsored by the bipartisan “Gang of 8,” including Democrats Charles Schumer (NY), Richard Durbin (IL), Robert Menendez (NJ), and Michael Bennet (CO), and Republicans John McCain (AZ), Lindsey Graham(SC), Marco Rubio (FL), and Jeff Flake (AZ). It was introduced in the Senate on April 16 and referred to the Judiciary Committee. Hearings have been held by that committee and various others. It was “marked up” with various amendments in the Judiciary Committee. On May 21, by a vote of 13-5, the Committee reported it out with amendments favorably to the full Senate.

A large number of amendments were offered on the Senate floor, leading to arguments between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) about the rules for offering and voting on amendments.

  • On June 13, the “Gang of Eight” beat back on a 57-43 vote an amendment offered by Charles Grassley (R-IA) that would have delayed a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal residents until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security “has maintained effective control” of the entire U.S.-Mexico border for a period of six months.
  • On June 24, the “border surge” amendment, sponsored by Bob Corker (R-TN) and John Hoeven (R-ND), passed a cloture vote by a 67-27 margin. This amendment would require that border security measures be put into place before any undocumented immigrant could be granted permanent resident status. These measures include 24-hour unarmed drone patrols, long-range thermal imaging cameras, changes to the electronic employment verification system, improvements to the exit tracking system, 700 miles of fence along the border with Mexico, and doubling the number of Border Patrol officers to 40,000. All at a cost of $30 to $46 billion dollars. (Senator Leahy (D-VT) said the amendment “reads like a Christmas wish list for Halliburton.”) In addition, the amendment would prohibit persons who are legalized under CIR from getting credit for Social Security contributions made while working in the U.S. without authorization. Immigration advocacy groups see the “border surge” amendment as a bitter pill but perhaps decisive for passage of S.744 in the Senate. On one hand, they oppose “militarizing the border” and the Social Security provisions. On the other hand, the cloture vote earned 15 Republican votes, which helped put S.744 over the top.

On June 28, the Senate voted for cloture on S.744, with 68 senators supporting and 32 in opposition (60 are needed to break a filibuster). All of the Democrats were joined by 14 Republicans in voting “yes.” Then, S.744 was passed by the full Senate with the same 68-32 vote.

For more, see:

House of Representatives

In the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has ruled out the option of considering the Senate bill, S.744. Instead, Boehner with other Republican leaders in the House–Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)–made the following announcement after a July 10 special meeting of the House Republican Conference to discuss the issue of immigration reform:

Today House Republicans affirmed that rather than take up the flawed legislation rushed through the Senate, House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken system.  The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy.  But they don’t trust a Democratic-controlled Washington, and they’re alarmed by the president’s ongoing insistence on enacting a single, massive, Obamacare-like bill rather than pursuing a step-by-step, common-sense approach to actually fix the problem.  The president has also demonstrated he is willing to unilaterally delay or ignore significant portions of laws he himself has signed, raising concerns among Americans that this administration cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate.

Boehner said on June 18 that he will not bring any immigration bill to the floor unless it has the support of a majority of House Republicans. This follows the “Hastert rule,” an unofficial principle named for former speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), who would rarely allow a vote on a bill that did not have the support of a majority of his party.

The Speaker has encouraged the efforts of the House’s own “Gang of 8” which is trying to craft a bipartisan CIR bill. That group was made up of John Carter (R-TX), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Sam Johnson (R-TX), Raul Labrador (R-ID), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and John Yarmuth (D-KY). However, Labrador quit the group in early June, possibly imperiling their success. The group has reached a deal “in principle,” but no specific bill has been introduced yet, and negotiations are continuing within the group.

At the same time, the Speaker has allowed committees to work on related legislation through a more piecemeal approach (as opposed to a single “comprehensive” bill). None of these pieces of legislation offers a path to legalization or citizenship for the undocumented population:

    • H.R. 1172, the Legal Workforce Act, is sponsored by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX). It would require all employers to use the E-Verify system to electronically check the legal status of employees. Like the AG Act, it was referred on April 26 to the Judiciary Committee and the Committees on Education and the Workforce, and Ways and Means for consideration. On June 26, the House Judiciary Committee voted the bill out of committee on a 22-9 straight party vote.


    • H.R. 1417, the Border Security Results Act of 2013, is sponsored by Michael McCaul (R-TX). It would require the administration to report to Congress periodically on border security and require the Comptroller General to make a determination as to when “operational control” has been achieved. The bill was marked up by the Homeland Security Committee, then reported favorably by the Committee to the full House on May 20, 2013. It’s been calendared for floor debate, although it’s not clear when that may take place.


    • H.R. 1773, the AG Act, is sponsored by Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). It would create an agricultural guest worker program. It was referred on April 26 to the Judiciary Committee and the Committees on Education and the Workforce, and Ways and Means for consideration. On June 19, the Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a straight party line vote of 20-16.


    • H.R. 2131, the Supplying Knowledge-Based  Immigrants and Lifting Levels of STEM Visas (SKILLS) Act, is sponsored by Robert W. Goodlatte (R-VA) and Darrell Issa (R-CA). It was introduced in the House on May 23. It would allocate green cards to STEM graduates from U.S. universities, raise H-1B filing fees and increase the annual quota of these visas, and create visas for entrepreneurs, among other things. One June 27, the Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a 20-14 straight party line vote.


    • H.R. 2220, the Support More Assets, Resources, and Technology on the Border Act of 2013, is sponsored by Representative Ted Poe (R-TX). Poe is Chair of the House Immigration Reform Caucus and Vice Chair of the Immigration Subcommittee. The bill was introduced on June 3, 2013. It would set up a process for a Congressional vote to certify whether or not operational control of the border has been achieved 90 days after DHS reports to Congress on this goal.  If Congress does not certify that operational control has been achieved, the bill sets up a process for hiring an additional 1,500 CBP officers and a short term deployment of the National Guard until operational control is achieved.


    • H.R. 2278, the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act, is sponsored by Trey Gowdy (R-SC). The bill was introduced on June 11, 2013. Gowdy explains that the bill “grants states and localities the authority to enforce federal immigration laws, makes it more difficult for foreign nationals who pose a national security risk to enter and remain in the U.S., improves visa security, protects American communities from dangerous criminal aliens, strengthens border security, and equips our immigration enforcement officers to better do their jobs. It was referred to the Judiciary, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Committees. The Judiciary Committee held a hearing on June 13. On June 18, the Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a straight party line vote of 20-15.


The President

President Obama has made it a priority for his second term to sign a CIR bill into law. He had campaigned on fixing the broken immigration system. But, as NPR reports, he’s being careful to avoid being too personally identified with the bill, as was the case with the health care bill that became known as “ObamaCare.” Any legislative effort that becomes known as the president’s baby almost immediately makes his political foes hellbent on stopping it and denying him a victory. So the president has emphasized that he supports much of S.744, but it’s the Senate’s bill not his.

Parting Thoughts

I’m not ready to place bets on whether CIR will be enacted. But here’s the view of one pundit, Chris Weigant, who calls it an “open question” but a “strong possibility”:

What are the chances comprehensive immigration reform is actually going to happen this year?  Your guess is really as good as mine, since we’re only at the beginning of a very long path — one that leads to Obama’s desk, but one that also has a lot of dead-ends and side branchings off to legislative doom.  Whether a bill can make it through the Senate and (especially) the Republican-controlled House is a very open question.

The storm of media coverage about CIR has created, for some, the mistaken impression that CIR legislation has already been enacted. And there are unlicensed immigration consultants who have appeared, seeking to profit from the confusion. They may pretend to offer help applying for supposed CIR immigration benefits that do not in fact exist. For example, some consultants have asked clients to get on a waiting list so they can get to the front of the line when the new law comes into effect, says Rigo Reyes, chief of investigations for Los Angeles County’s Department of Consumer Affairs. Don’t fall into traps like this. You could not only lose your money but also seriously complicate (or make impossible) any effort at legal immigration.

U.S. law clearly specifies who can provide immigration-related legal advice and assistance:  an attorney licensed to practice law or an Accredited Representative in a non-profit organization recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals. For ways to avoid being defrauded by an unlicensed immigration consultant, see here. And it’s no surprise that not all licensed immigration lawyers are saints. See here for how to find a qualified immigration lawyer.

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