Will Congress tackle immigration reform?

  • United States
  • 04/26/2019
  • Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP

XAVIER FRANCIS

Former President George W. Bush raised eyebrows last month during a speech at a naturalization ceremony, when he veered into politics and urged legislative reform of the immigration system.

“When the laws are outdated and ineffective, they must be rewritten,” he said. “I hope those responsible in Washington can dial down the rhetoric, put politics aside, and modernize our immigration laws soon.”

Now, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has called for bipartisan legislation to do just that. It’s “long past due” for Republicans and Democrats to work together to fix the immigration system, he told reporters before Congress took Easter recess. In response, House majority leader Nancy Pelosi said she was “pleased to see” McConnell’s willingness to talk immigration. In the coming days, the White House is expected to hear an immigration reform proposal prepared by Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner that will reportedly cover border security, a merit-based immigration system, temporary guest worker programs, and asylum laws.

In normal times, immigration reform would seem impossible in such a divisive environment, a political third-rail as campaigning for the 2020 election gets underway. But these are hardly normal times. Several conditions make the environment conducive to legislative action on immigration. First, immigration reform is long overdue—the last time Congress made major changes to the system was more than 20 years ago in 1996, and truly comprehensive immigration reform dates back to 1986. Second, the administration has been pushing its immigration agenda so heavily that it may be forced to make concessions and get Congressional buy-in if it wants to continue to pursue its aims. Third, the surge in Central American asylum seekers could be the catalyst for a broader immigration debate.

Will Congress defy conventional wisdom and tackle immigration reform? If so, which issues are likely to be addressed and will they include business immigration routes for high-skilled workers?

Republicans appear most interested in addressing reforms to asylum law to tamp down on asylum applicants at the southern border. The White House is looking to modify the Flores settlement agreement, which requires the government to release children held in detention after 20 days, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which provides legal protections for unaccompanied minor children who enter the U.S. Democrats appear willing to deal on border issues but would want reinstatement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status, two programs threatened with elimination and that remain in existence only because of intervention by the courts.

While it is unclear whether lawmakers will expand the negotiations beyond border issues and address legal immigration routes, including high-skilled workers, Republicans reintroduced the RAISE Act in both the House and Senate last week, a day before McConnell’s comments. The RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy) Act would introduce a points-based system for employment-based visas that would pool applicants and rank them on the basis of education, English-language ability, age, salary level, and other achievements. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would conduct draws twice a year and invite the candidates with the highest scores to apply for immigrant visas. The RAISE Act also proposes to slash family-based immigration, cap the number of refugees granted permanent residency at 50,000 per year, and abolish the annual Diversity Visa lottery program that allows 50,000 nationals of countries with low levels of immigration to the U.S. to apply for green cards. President Trump endorsed a similar version of the RAISE Act when it was first introduced in 2017.

Congress has failed to carry out comprehensive immigration reform for decades. Now, more than ever, businesses and individuals should engage with policymakers to help shape an immigration system that responds to today’s challenges.

Xavier Francis is an Associate Attorney in the Tysons, Virginia office of Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP.

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