Congress debates immigration reform
Two competing immigration reform bills have been introduced in Congress in past weeks and the debate over the best approach toward overhauling a broken system is raging.
One proposal sponsored by Sens. John Kyl, R-AZ, and John Cornyn, R-TX, would mandate extensive reforms in border security including increases in border patrol agents and technology. The Kyl-Cornyn bill also provides funding to increase the size and number of detention facilities for holding illegal immigrants.
Perhaps the most contentious portion of the Kyl-Cornyn measure is the requirement that immigrants in the U.S. illegally report for health screening and background checks before being issued a temporary work permit. The permit would allow the individual to work and travel freely throughout the U.S. Following the issuance of a temporary permit, illegal immigrants would have five years before being required to return to their country of origin. Once back in their home country, individuals would be required to apply for a “guest-worker” permit before returning to the U.S. Critics of the Kyl-Cornyn proposal are quick to point out that many immigrants, even those in the country illegally, have an established and important presence in this country including families, homes and jobs which are not easily abandoned.
An alternative to the reform offered in the Kyl-Cornyn bill has been offered in the form of bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. John McCain, R-AZ, and Edward Kennedy, D-MA. The McCain-Kennedy bill also features an increase in border security and funding to prevent illegal immigration to tighten the porous border. However, rather than a voluntary deportation program, the legislation creates a large “guest-worker” program that requires immigrant registration and the payment of punitive penalties and back-taxes before an illegal immigrant could start toward the path of citizenship.
Signers on both plans have been quick to step forward in favor of their chosen bill and are quick to criticize the opposition. Sen. McCain said in reference to the Kyl-Cornyn bill, “report-to-deport is not a reality, and it isn’t workable. Systematically rounding up every person living here illegally and sending them home isn’t a viable option either. It’s neither practically possible or economically feasible.”
Kyl, arguing in support of his own legislation stated, “Those who seek permanent residence and eventual citizenship will have to return home and apply from their own countries, but that’s the time-honored and legal method of doing so today.”
Under the Kyl-Cornyn proposal, illegal immigrants who do not comply with the proposal would be automatically deported to their home country and denied entry to the U.S. for a period of ten years.
Many close to the issue believe that White House support will be critical to getting any meaningful reform bill passed. Although President George Bush made immigration reforms a top priority following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, White House reaction to the recent flurry of activity has been muted. At hearings scheduled for both bills currently before Congress, representatives for the White House have been conspicuously absent.
Agriculture sector interest groups are closely monitoring the legislative activity. At present, immigrant workers compose a significant portion of the agriculture, manufacturing and service sector workforce. A year 2000 census estimate showed that nearly 30 percent of the immigrant workforce is employed in various agriculture industries and an additional 20 percent of immigrants are employed in manufacturing and processing pursuits. In total, it is believed that as many as 11 million workers in these industries may be in the country illegally.
Analysts are quick to point out that any immigration reform must take into account the importance these workers play in the economy. Studies show that without immigrants from other countries, and particularly Mexico, the U.S. labor market would have experienced a shortfall of more than 500,000 employees, a contraction of more than 13 percent in some industries. The agriculture pursuits would have been especially hard-hit, due to the large number of recent immigrants employed in the industry. Estimates show an agriculture sector shortage of more than 132,000 workers annually without immigrant workers.
Regardless of the reform enacted, the bill will likely have a substantial impact on agricultural producers who rely heavily on the immigrant labor pool to meet their labor needs. Already, interest groups for producers are lining up to provide input on both measures on behalf of farmers and ranchers across the county. — John Robinson, WLJ Associate Editor
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