2010 could see changes in immigration policy

Having waited patiently in the wings, immigration advocates are anxious to take President Barack Obama at his word when he said immigration reform would soon follow health care on the nation’s agenda.

With several initiatives gearing up to put the issue before Congress in 2010, the advocates are all too aware they haven’t had much cause for celebration in recent years. Their last big push in Washington, in 2007, failed to settle the status of the nation’s estimated 11.9 million undocumented immigrants.

Deportations have continued, with nearly 370,000 immigrants detained during the fiscal year that ended in October. That’s more than twice the number in 1999, according to a report last week by Transactional Records Clearing House at Syracuse University.

In Chicago, frustration has been heightened by tougher local enforcement measures, such as a new city ordinance that, starting Jan. 1, will allow police to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers. Many of them turn out to be undocumented immigrants.

On the street, the emotions behind the issue can be seen in the growing campaign on behalf of Rigo Padilla, an undocumented college student ordered out of the country by Dec. 16. Last week, 200 people rallied through downtown, and some demonstrators have threatened civil disobedience if Padilla isn’t allowed to stay.

Groups seeking more aggressive immigration-law enforcement, meanwhile, see cases like Padilla’s as reasons to crack down further on illegal immigrants. His illegal status was discovered when he was arrested for drinking and driving, and he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DUI charge.

In hopes of finding a resolution, Congress is again talking about an immigration overhaul early next year. One House bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., is expected to be introduced before Christmas, and another Senate bill is expected in January.

Following up on Obama’s vow to address the issue when he met with activists at the White House earlier this year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last month the administration envisions a “three-legged stool” that includes better border enforcement, more efficient legal immigration, and “a tough and fair” pathway to legalization that will require the undocumented to learn English and pay fines, among other things.

Below, where the three legs currently stand:

In November, officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced 111,000 “criminal aliens” were identified in jails and prisons under a Secure Communities Initiative launched in October 2008 with local law enforcement agencies. Of that number, 11,000 were serving time for murder, rape and other serious crimes. The rest had been charged with less serious crimes, such as burglary or property theft.

In April, ICE announced a shift in focus to crack down more on employers that illegally hire undocumented immigrants, though records do not yet show that the new approach has resulted in more employer arrests. In FY09, 114 employers were arrested on criminal charges, compared with 135 in FY08 and 92 in FY07. Meanwhile, arrests of illegal workers at their jobs went down to 1,840 in FY09 from 6,152 the year before.

In July, 654 “workplace audits” checking for illegal hiring produced 14,000 suspected documents and $2.3 million in fines. In November, ICE announced 1,000 new workplace audits.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration rescinded a hotly contested “no-match rule” introduced by the Bush administration. The never-implemented rule ? the subject of a federal lawsuit in San Francisco ? would have imposed fines on employers who did not quickly act on federal notices showing a worker’s stated Social Security number did not match Social Security Administration records.

Approximately 170,000 businesses nationwide use the federal “E-verify” software program that is meant to determine whether new hires are providing legal documentation. Initially created as a pilot program in 1996, the software has become widely available, with 1,000 new subscribers per month since 2007, according to Homeland Security. Under a rule approved this year, federal contractors are required to use E-verify.

There are an estimated 11.9 million people in the country illegally, according to a 2008 report by the Pew Hispanic Center. In the Midwest, of the 286,000 Mexican immigrants who’ve arrived since 2001, roughly 66 percent are illegal, according to a 2009 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The economic recession has had an impact on immigration flows, leading to a 20 percent drop in annual remittances to Mexico earlier this year.

In a November 13 speech, Napolitano laid out a plan for legalization that would require illegal immigrants to register, pay fines and all taxes they owe, learn English and pass a criminal background check. Napolitano argued that bringing illegal immigrants into the system would enhance national security and protect American workers against unfair competition from lower-paid illegal immigrants. Opponents dismiss legalization as a form of amnesty.

Delays for some forms of legal immigration can stretch to several years. This year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes citizenship applications and visas, successfully reduced months-long backlogs for FBI background checks and other red tape.

After a 69 percent increase in processing fees two years ago, naturalization applications dropped to about 733,000 in FY09, from about 1 million during the previous 12 months.

Officials are weighing whether to increase fees again in the face of declining revenues, prompting an outcry from immigrant advocates who argue that will keep more eligible people from becoming citizens.

In discussions over immigration reform, some have proposed an increase in foreign guest-worker visas, but unions and groups seeking to limit immigration in general are opposed, arguing those workers would take jobs away from Americans.

Gutierrez is expected to introduce a bill for comprehensive immigration reform in the next few weeks, kicking off another round of debate. The bill’s “core principles” would include a pathway for legalization, aligning “future flows” of legal immigration with economic and labor market needs and making family unity a cornerstone of the nation’s immigration system.

In July, U.S. Rep. Heath Schuler, D-N.C., and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., re-introduced the SAVE Act, which seeks to reduce illegal immigration through increased border security and requiring employers to prove their workers are in the U.S. legally. The bill was defeated in 2007.

In April, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., re-introduced the DREAM Act, which would grant conditional legal status to undocumented students who arrived to the U.S. younger than 16 and have been continuously in the country for six years. The legislation was first conceived in 2001, and has been repeatedly defeated.

Also in April, Durbin and U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced legislation designed to curb abuse in the H-1B temporary visa program used by software companies and other high-tech employers to fill vacant positions. Among other things, the bill would require employers to prove they’ve sought American workers for those spots first.

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.