- Majority of immigration-related bills in 2015 are focused on border security, interior enforcement, and rolling back President Obama’s executive actions.
- Bipartisan legislation almost exclusively consists of bills focused on reforms to the legal immigration system, primarily high-skilled, employment-based (EB) immigration.
- Of the 79 immigration-related bills introduced, 5 have been marked up and passed through committee, and zero have reached the floor.
While dozens of immigration-related bills have been introduced by members on both sides of Capitol Hill as the 114th Congress reaches its first 100 days, most of the work remains at the committee level and no legislation has reached the floor. As of April 13, nearly 80 immigration bills have been introduced, of which only five have been voted out of committee – all of those in the House. Nearly three-quarters of the bills consist of legislation addressing border security and enforcement (52 percent), and rolling back President Obama’s executive actions (20 percent). The other bills include proposals affecting the resident unauthorized population, illegal immigration, and reforms to the legal immigration system (mostly high-skilled, employment based immigration). Below is a discussion about the major trends in immigration legislation this year and a list of all bills introduced and passed through committee.
After the unaccompanied child migrant crisis of last summer and President Obama’s executive actions in November, it is not surprising that House leadership sought to make the issue of border security an early priority. As mentioned, the majority of immigration-related bills introduced this year have addressed border security and enforcement (Table 1). Indeed all five pieces of legislation that have made it through committee (summarized below) have addressed either border security or interior enforcement issues. The bills have mostly focused on resources and infrastructure at the border, preventing unauthorized migration, strengthening interior enforcement practices, and the treatment and processing of apprehended unaccompanied children.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul’s Secure Our Borders First Act of 2015 received the most attention and was touted as a potential vehicle for House leadership to pass a border security bill early on. The bill was an update to a similar border bill McCaul introduced in the last congress, which passed unanimously in the Homeland Security Committee. This year’s version of the bill goes significantly further, adding specific infrastructure and personnel requirements in Border Patrol sectors, establishing a commission to review the state of border security, and requiring the prevention of all unlawful entry. After being reported out of the Homeland Security Committee on a party line vote, the bill was put on the House calendar. However, after failing to garner support from conservatives who thought the bill did not do enough on interior enforcement and would pave the way for broader immigration reform, GOP leadership delayed a vote and pulled the bill from the floor.1 Although further action on the bill has been unclear, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters this week that he intends to bring it up again.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the bipartisan immigration bills introduced this year deal almost exclusively with high-skilled, employment based immigration—reforms which usually garner support across party lines. In the Senate, two groups of senators introduced legislation to increase higher-skilled, employment-based (EB) immigration through several reforms to the legal immigration system. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Chris Coons (D-DE), Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the Immigration Innovation (“I-Squared”) Act of 2015 (S. 153). The I-Squared Act proposes to increase the H-1B cap and reform the EB green card program and student visas. Sens. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Mark Warner (D-VA) also introduced a bipartisan bill, the Startup Act (S.181), to create additional legal pathways for U.S.-educated foreign STEM students and immigrant entrepreneurs to work and invest in the United States.
In the House, similar bills were introduced by bipartisan groups of members. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2015, along with 12 Republican and 7 Democratic co-sponsors. The bill, which actually passed in the House in 2011 with overwhelming bipartisan support, would eliminate the per-county quota on employment-based green cards. Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO), Mark Amodei (R-NV) and four other Republican and Democratic congressmen also reintroduced the American Entrepreneurship and Investment Act of 2015, which makes the EB-5 immigrant investor program permanent. Other bipartisan bills in the House, like the Jolt Act and the Promoting Tourism to Enhance Our Economy Act, aim at facilitating travel and tourism to the United States and updating and expanding the Visa Waiver Program.
Most discussion on immigration so far this Congress has remained at the committee level. The Senate and House Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees have held several hearings, as has the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Several of the committee hearings have focused on the president’s executive actions, analyzing the legality of the actions and their implications for the country.
Perhaps some of the most substantive and comprehensive hearings have occurred in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Between March 17 and 26, the committee held a series of hearings on addressing the current unauthorized population and future flows, the root causes of Central American migration to the United States, transnational crime, and securing the southwest border.
Legislation Passed Through Committee
The House Homeland Security and Judiciary Committees have been responsible for the five pieces of legislation that have seen movement. In addition to the border bill passed by the Homeland Security Committee, the Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), took up several bills that had been passed through his committee in the previous congress, including the Legal Workforce Act, which relates to electronic employment verification, and a renamed version of the Safe Act, which deals with interior enforcement. The bills, which all passed on a party line vote, are listed and summarized below.
- H.R. 399: Secure Our Borders First Act: Sponsor: Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX)
- Requires DHS to gain/maintain operational control and situational awareness of high-traffic sectors in the southern border within 2 years and the entire border within 5. (Operational control is defined as “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States.”)
- Within 18 months, the bill mandates a slate of technological deployments for both borders, as well as the building of 415 miles of access roads, 27 new miles of fencing, and 12 operation bases in southern border sectors.
- Bill established the Border Security Verification Commission (BSVC) to independently verify border security metrics and level of “operational control.” If DHS does not meet the deadlines set in the bill or if the Commission disagrees with DHS’s determination, no political appointees within DHS are allowed to receive a salary increase or bonus pay or fly in government aircraft.
- CBP must also impose its Consequence Delivery system on all crossers. This high-consequence strategy limits voluntary returns in favor of greater consequences, such as formal removal proceedings.
- Requires biometric exit implementation at 15 busiest air, land and sea ports within 2 years and at all ports of entry within 5 years.
- H.R. 1148: Michael Davis Jr. and Danny Oliver in Honor of State and Local Law Enforcement Act: Sponsor: Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC)
- Grants states and local governments the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
- State and local law enforcement officers would be able to make immigration-related arrests and turn a person over to the federal government.
- Would make illegal immigration a federal crime instead of a civil offence.
- Rolls back efforts to classify certain unauthorized persons as “low priority” for deportation.
- H.R. 1147: Legal Workforce Act: Sponsor: Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)
- Establishes an employment eligibility verification system (EEVS) like E-Verify and makes it mandatory within 2 years.
- Within 6 months of enactment, the bill requires that the following be re-verified: critical infrastructure employees; workers assigned to a federal contract; and federal, state, and local government employees. Authorizes employers to voluntarily re-verify employees.
- H.R. 1149: Protection of Children Act: Sponsor: Rep. John Carter (R-TX)
- All unaccompanied alien children (UAC) would be treated equally under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) and subject to faster removals.2
- Children with potential claims to asylum after initial screening must have a court hearing within 14 days and remain in government custody (up to 30 days).
- H.R. 1153: Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act: Co-Sponsors: Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT)
- All unaccompanied alien children would be put under Expedited Removal. DHS would have 7 days (instead of 48 hours under current law) to notify HHS that a UAC has been apprehended and has to transfer UAC to HHS after 30 days (instead of after 72 hours).
- Changes definition of UAC: Children will not be considered unaccompanied if they have a sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or cousin over 18 years of age available to provide care. Currently only children without a parent or legal guardian are considered unaccompanied.
- Limits access to asylum by removing exceptions previously given to minors (like exception from being placed in a safe third country and applying within a year of arriving).
- Limits and restricts the use of Humanitarian Parole and Public Interest Parole.
- CBP is given access to all federal lands within 100 miles of the border
Legislation list compiled by Sara Mahoney
2 Under the TVPRA, DHS screens children from contiguous countries (Mexico/Canada) within 48 hours of apprehension to determine if the child is a victim of trafficking or has a claim to asylum based on fear of persecution. If the child does not meet that criteria, they are eligible to agree to a voluntary return and speedy repatriation to Mexico. On the other hand, UAC from non-contiguous countries must be transferred to ORR within 72 hours of apprehension and are guaranteed an immigration court hearing. Read more here.