Everyone agrees that our federal immigration system is broken. But finally, it seems, the momentum for dealing with the problem is building in our nation’s capital, across the United States and in Connecticut. We have the ability to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2014.
Senate Bill 744, a broad-based reform proposal, was approved by the U.S. Senate in June 2013 and moved into the House of Representatives. Connecticut Rep. Elizabeth Esty is coauthoring the House version, which would secure our borders, enact reform for immigrant families and businesses that hire immigrant workers, and provide a pathway to citizenship.
Securing our borders is a focal point of the debate. Our border with Mexico is 1,954 miles long, and some want to build a fence along it. Others want national identity cards issued to legal residents and U.S. citizens. The coming year could see Congress approve the ID card, a more secure entry and exit system for foreign nationals coming to the U.S., and the creation of a 19-foot fence along our U.S.-Mexican border.
Equally important are efforts to remove barriers that stop immigrants from gaining meaningful employment and prevent businesses from hiring the workers they need. According to some estimates, widespread immigration reform could reduce the country’s budget deficit by $197 billion over a 10-year period.
Businesses such as Microsoft and Google need highly skilled workers in order to maintain competition in the global marketplace. U.S. businesses need to be able to hire the best and brightest worldwide. But right now, the ability to hire international workers is severely limited.
The H-1B visa program for highly skilled foreign workers opens up on Oct. 1 each year. But because there are a limited number of new H-1B visas available each fiscal year, those visas were all claimed by Oct. 5, 2013. In effect, if a U.S. business wanted an H-1B visa this fiscal year, it had only a day or two to apply. The program needs to be expanded.
There are two other immigration-oriented measures that face uncertain futures. One is DACA, which is short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. When it became clear the measure was not going to be approved by Congress, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum in 2012 to the federal Department of Homeland Security, which authorized the program. Now a young person who came to the U.S. before they were 16 years old, and who is in school or has obtained a high school diploma or GED, can receive an employment authorization document. That document allows them to obtain a Social Security card and a state driver’s license, and to be legally hired. However, several states are bringing legal challenges against Obama’s directive. Whether DACA can survive into the next presidency is questionable.
Also controversial is the DREAM Act, or the Development, Relief & Education for Alien Minors Act, which has come before Congress several times, but has never been passed. The DREAM Act would provide a pathway to permanent U.S. residency to young immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for five or more years, have completed high school, and who serve in the military or attend an accredited college.
Ultimately, the DREAM Act would provide a pathway to citizenship for these children who were brought to our country, through no fault of their own. Passage could help our communities, provide more soldiers in our military, provide more finances for our colleges and universities, and add to the number of taxpayers funding our economy.
The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service is experiencing huge case backlogs. Many U.S. small business owners cannot find Americans to fill the jobs of landscapers, laborers, dishwashers, cleaning persons, etc. If an employer identifies a foreign national that he or she wants to hire, there is an immigration process called employer-sponsorship. The standard employer-sponsor case is backlogged over two years. What employer wants to wait two years to fill an open position?
If a U.S. citizen wants to sponsor his brother in the Philippines, that case is currently backlogged more than 23 years. That can be a lifetime in a third-world country.
Comprehensive immigration reform must address the serious backlogs in our broken immigration system. These tremendous backlogs discourage immigrants from following our laws. People ask, “Why don’t immigrants just follow our laws and immigrate to the U.S. legally?” The answer is that a U.S. employer cannot wait two-plus years to fill a job vacancy which can’t be filled by U.S. workers; a family cannot wait 23 years to be reunited with loved ones.
Other immigration issues include state driver’s licenses. If you’ve ever been involved in an accident, you would prefer the other driver to be licensed and insured. But the 11 million people living illegally in the U.S. cannot get state driver’s license or auto insurance. Some states are considering issuing state driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, believing that it is safer for our communities to teach undocumented persons to drive safely and to have appropriate insurance coverage. In 2014 we may see more proponents of state-issued driver’s licenses for undocumented persons.
Additionally, the Affordable Health Care Act, or “Obamacare,” does not include undocumented persons. However, our hospitals must accept and treat undocumented persons in emergency situations. Many do not have health insurance, or the ability to pay the high cost of medical bills. Some feel that the undocumented should also be required to have medical insurance coverage so that our medical care system is not over-burdened. This topic is ripe for debate in 2014 as the ACA takes effect.
This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court, in United States vs. Windsor, struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act. Prior to this decision, if a U.S. citizen married his same-sex spouse in a country such as Canada, where same-sex marriages are legal, the U.S. citizen could not sponsor his spouse to come to the U.S. The foreign national spouse had to seek other means to immigrate to the U.S., such as through an employer-sponsor application.
The Windsordecision now allows the U.S. citizen to sponsor his or her spouse to come to the U.S. The U.S. citizen can also petition for a fiancé visa for his or her same-sex fiancé. And the U.S. citizen can now petition for his or her same-sex spouse’s children to come to the U.S.
On the other hand, some foreign nations still consider homosexuality to be a criminal offense. What happens if the foreign spouse or fiancé of a U.S. citizen must have his or her personal immigration interview at a U.S. consulate in a country in which homosexuality is illegal?
The opportunities that the Windsor decision provides, and the challenges it presents, are still evolving, and Connecticut, as one of the states where same-sex marriage is legal, will play a large part in the evolution.•