“Now is the time.” That’s what President Obama said on January 29, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada when he introduced his four (4) part plan for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. The four principles that the President feels should guide the overhaul of our immigration laws are as follows:
1. Securing our borders;
2. Strengthening accountability for businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers;
3. Strengthening our economic competitiveness by creating a legal immigration system that reflects our values and diverse needs; and
4. Creating accountability from those people who are living in the United States illegally.
I think the President’s quote should have been “It’s about time.” Our immigration system is broken, and it’s been broken for a very long time.
I “enjoyed” my first taste of our immigration system when I started working for U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato in the 1980’s. Back then, constituents would call, both individuals and HR professionals for companies doing business in New York, complaining, e.g., that they could not get their relatives into the United States for a visit, or there were delays processing their company’s H-1B worker petition either at legacy-INS or the Department of State. Eventually, the primary company complaint in the 1990’s was that there weren’t enough H-1B nonimmigrant visas to go around. (Sound familiar?)
In those same conversations, I would no doubt hear about all the “illegals” that were streaming across our border, or hanging out on Westchester street corners waiting to be hired for day jobs. (I’m not picking on Westchester, but I was working in Sen. D’Amato’s New York City office at that time and a lot of my calls came from that area.)
In 1997, I went into private practice, focusing the majority of my practice on immigration and nationality matters. Although the times have changed, the issues have not. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. Much worse.
The Department of Homeland Security (including the three agencies that make it up – U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection) is an enormous agency. The U.S. Department of State is pretty big too. To be fair, I’ve met many people over the years who work at these agencies who are good people and who do exceptional work. But the system within which they work, and which we are stuck with, is very much broken.
Just before the President’s announcement, a group of U.S. Senators offered some guiding principles for comprehensive immigration reform. President Obama followed suit a couple of days later with the four principles noted above. Thus far, we’ve heard a lot of dialogue, both for and against comprehensive immigration reform, as one might expect (and in this author’s opinion, some good and some not so good). We’ve seen little yet in the form of actual legislative proposals.
In the House, Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) introduced the “Reuniting Families Act,” which contains provisions for reducing family immigration visa backlogs and promoting timely reunification of immigrant families. Specifically, the bill includes provisions that would (a) ensure that immigration visas are allocated efficiently, (b) alleviate lengthy wait times that keep legal immigrants and their families separated for years, and (c) decrease measures that prevent family members from obtaining visas. The bill also includes other provisions, such as eliminating discrimination in immigration law against same-sex, permanent partners and their families who are seeking to reunite.
In the Senate, on March 18, 2013, Senator Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2013. The jury’s still out on this proposed legislation, but at first glance, if passed without change, the H-1B and L-1 nonimmigrant visa programs will have some big changes (e.g., requiring that all companies make a good faith effort to hire Americans first, requiring prospective H-1B employers to list available positions on a Department of Labor sponsored website for a period of 30 days prior to petitioning for foreign labor, etc.). Companies that regularly use the H-1B visa program will no doubt not like these provisions.
It will be interesting to see the politics of all this as immigration in general, and reform in particular, has become the “third rail” of politics. But reform – well thought out reform – is absolutely necessary.