The U.S. Senate will likely pass a bill to overhaul immigration laws but the House of Representatives will probably not vote on it this year, predicted immigration scholar and Cornell adjunct professor of law Stephen Yale-Loehr ’77, J.D. ’81, at a press briefing May 17 in Washington, D.C.
“The last time we enacted a systematic overhaul of our immigration laws was in 1990, and that process actually started in 1981,” said Yale-Loehr. “And that was back in the good old days” of relatively good bipartisan support for immigration reform, which is not the situation today.
“Congress is more fractured politically,” he said. “I’ve been watching Congress now for 30 years and I think it’s the hardest I’ve seen to get something through.”
The 867-page immigration reform bill is in the final week of markup in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where some 300 amendments are being considered. The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), expects the bill to be brought to the senate floor for a vote in June; it will go to the House if passed.
The Senate bill addresses a path to legalizing the estimated 11 million people who are in the United States without documentation, calls for about $4.5 billion for expanded border control and institutes a two-tier points-based system for both family-based immigration and employment-based workers.
One important aspect of the reform bill, said Yale-Loehr, is how the United States will deal with future immigration: “Part of the reason we have 11 million undocumented noncitizens now is because we didn’t figure out a system that would allow them to come into the United States legally to begin with, or to stay here.”
The bill would also change the verification process that determines who is eligible to work in the United States from the current paper system to an electronic system, E-Verify, that would match photos with identification numbers.
Equally important, said Yale-Loehr, is how we deal with immigrants after they arrive in the United States: “I particularly like the immigrant integration part of the Senate bill because it’s not just getting them a green card and then letting them have to depend on themselves. It’s a longer process of integrating them into our society. I think that’s important.”
In addition to legislative complexity, immigration policy suffers because many government agencies have some jurisdiction: three within the Department of Homeland Security; others within the Departments of State, Labor, and Health and Human Services.
“My wish, if I were czar of the world, is that we would have a better functioning immigration agency so we wouldn’t have to do this at the legislative level,” Yale-Loehr said, citing Canada and Australia’s models. “They give that authority to the agency so that the agency can make changes every year.”
Yale-Loehr likened current efforts at crafting a bill to a Rubik’s Cube, with so many legislative directives it’s difficult to line up all of the colors. “It’s like playing Rubik’s Cube with five different people … who all have the same Rubik’s Cube and are twisting it in different directions. To get it all to come together at the end so that you have one solid color is going to be very difficult.”
Despite the obstacles, Yale-Loehr remains optimistic, and patient.
“I predict we are likely to see something out of the Senate but we are unlikely to see something out of the House this year. That doesn’t mean immigration reform will stop. It will simply mean it will carry over into 2014 or 2015.”
Marijo Wright Dowd is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.