Oklahoma is following a growing list of states in proposing legislation to target illegal immigrants and the businesses that employ them. Currently the Oklahoma legislature is drafting laws that would deny welfare benefits, in-state college tuition rates and numerous state subsidies to illegal aliens. The legislation would also empower police authorities to detain illegal immigrants and require businesses that work on behalf of the state to prove their employees are legal residents. This legislation comes after the passage of similar laws last year in Colorado and Georgia, and is a response to a larger concern that US government acknowledgement of immigration problems is lacking.
According to Pew Hispanic Center’s estimates, approximately 12 million unauthorized migrants currently reside within US borders. (Source) The size of this community alone validates the US’s need to address and reform the current ineffective immigration system at a national level. When coupled with the economic burdens created by this illegal populace and the opportunities it possibly affords terrorist groups, gangs, and international criminal organizations, the overall importance of the issue becomes even greater. Not surprisingly then, such concerns associated with current immigration policies have sparked an unusually high degree of bipartisan and intergovernmental agreement on the need to address this issue in the short-term future.
However, the widespread recognition of the problem and the need to address it have not yet translated into an overall agreement on how this may best be accomplished. Currently, there are two versions of reform being circulated at the national level, one backed by the White House and one by Congress. Although large portions of the reform proposals are similar and therefore agreeable to all parties involved, several significant issues remain contentious. Consequently, the ability to rewrite the US immigration codes remains uncertain and will likely require a high level of attention and cooperation from the current administration if an agreement is to be achieved.
Tale of two proposals
On March 23, 2007, the STRIVE (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy) Act of 2007 was introduced in the US House of Representatives by a bipartisan group of authors and co-sponsors. In what was likely a direct response, a White House proposal for immigration policy reforms was leaked less than one week later.
Since the two reform proposals address the same issue, they both elicited broad agreement, between conservatives and liberals alike, on numerous key elements that include:
• Enhancing border security through the addition of physical barriers, virtual fences, and border patrol agents;
• Increasing interior enforcement through additional Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents,
• Creating an employment verification system and;
• Mandating the use of tamper-resistant IDs
Although the number of contentious issues is not excessive, forging an amenable resolution will be problematic as both sides differ vastly in their view of the path forward. One issue in particular figures to be especially difficult to resolve: dealing with illegal immigrants already in the US.
According to the White House’s proposal, a new ‘Z’ visa would be created that allows illegal immigrants to apply for a three-year work permit. This ‘Z’ visa would be renewable indefinitely at a set price of $3,500 per renewal application. The attainment of permanent legal resident status would require the individual to return to his country of origin, apply for permanent status at the US embassy or consulate, and pay a $10,000 fee. Critics believe the fees associated with the ‘Z’ visa are too high for most immigrants to pay
The Congressionally backed STRIVE plan would create an ‘H-2C’ guest-worker visa-program that initially limits the number of ‘guests’ to 400,000 per year. Individuals who maintain their ‘H-2C’ status for five years would then become eligible to apply for a conditional permanent residency that would evolve into citizenship should the individual: provide evidence of a continued presence and employment within the US, undergo and pass background examinations, submit a $500 fee, and pass English language and civic tests.
Concern about the failing immigration system surfaced in 2006 and eventually produced a Senatorial bill that received both Presidential and bipartisan Senate backing. This plan was to have allowed the nearly 12 million illegal migrants to remain in the US after learning the English language, paying small restitutions, and passing a background check. However, not all members of the Senate approved the proposal, as some of the more conservative Senators felt the proposal offered illegal immigrants amnesty. The plan also failed to clear the House of Representatives, thereby leaving the two congressional bodies gridlocked on the issue. The plan was later shelved entirely, and caused many states (such as Colorado, Georgia, and Oklahoma) to begin formulating their own legislation to deal with the illegal immigration problem.
The Impact of Persuasion
Key differences between the failed legislation attempts of 2006 and the ongoing attempts of 2007 have emerged. These differences center on the current administration and its desire to implement the overall reforms. First, although the administration voiced support for the Senate produced legislation in 2006, there is little evidence to suggest actions were taken to push for its approval. History generally shows that different outcomes result when the executive branch chooses to either passively support or actively campaign for a piece of legislation. Thus, by dispatching key cabinet personnel to Capitol Hill to smooth over any divisions among supporters, the administration has sent a clear signal that it desires to resolve the immigration issue in the near term.
Negotiations will inevitably occur as this bill work its way through Congress, and there is ample room for dialogue on the issues put forward. Though the precise outcome will likely differ substantially from the two current proposals, we expect Congress to pass a bill that reflects some of the current administration’s input. If passage of the bill occurs, it will likely occur be prior to this fall, before presidential campaigns and budgetary meetings effectively thwart Congress’ ability to compromise. In the interim, individual states will continue to assess their immigration issues on their own.