The upcoming Democratic-controlled Congress appears ready to focus on immigration reform, an issue that played out in elections across Arizona and the country in the fall. The outgoing Republican-controlled Congress largely avoided the issue.
Democrats had to decide immediately after the Nov. 7 elections if they wanted to expend their new political clout on the divisive issue when the 110th Congress opens Jan. 4.
Now, the question is simply what form immigration reform will take.
Attention on the issue at the federal level would — theoretically, at least — relieve pressure from state offi cials to deal with unchecked immigration in a piecemeal fashion.
Rep.-elect Harry Mitchell, a Tempe Democrat, said the freshman class will push for meaningful immigration reform because it was an issue in races across the country. However, he said he doesn’t yet have a clear read on how the particulars of any legislation may shake out.
Reps. Raul Grijalva and Ed Pastor, both re-elected Arizona Democrats, did not respond to requests for interviews on the topic last week.
Rep. Jeff Flake, a Republican, met with other lawmakers in recent days to try to determine a starting point. He said something of a consensus is emerging.
“The election results, for those who felt we would get a lot of mileage as Republicans just running on enforcement only, I think we were disabused of that notion — rather forcefully,” Flake said.
New legislation likely will be modeled on a bill co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., earlier this year.
Their bill outlined a path to legal status and eventual citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States.
The Senate passed an amended version of the measure, but the House rejected it. Instead, the outgoing Congress passed a limited measure that authorized new fencing and other enforcement measures along portions of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Local and state officials will keep a close watch on how Congress deals with the matter because unchecked immigration affects a wide range of services, said Dennis Burke, chief of staff for policy for Gov. Janet Napolitano. Chief among those services are education, health care and law enforcement.
The perfect example of how federal immigration policies affect the state is the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, Burke said. The federal program was intended to offset the costs incurred by local and state governments to incarcerate illegal immigrants with at least one felony or two misdemeanor convictions for at least four consecutive days.
“They’ve failed every year to pay the full costs, and we go every year to try to get the full costs recouped,” Burke said. “Hopefully, with a new Congress, they’ll be a little bit more open to that.”
Napolitano, the governors of fellow border states California and New Mexico, plus seven other states and Puerto Rico, sent a letter to President Bush on Nov. 20 asking him to provide $950 million to fund the program next year.
“Until the federal government can achieve its goal of restoring safety and security throughout our border regions, every effort should be made to compensate the state and local governments who have stepped up to fill this gap by policing the regions and incarcerating criminal aliens at their own considerable expense,” the governors wrote.
Burke hopes the new Congress will be willing to take incremental steps, such as increased funding for prisons and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, even if federal lawmakers shy away from taking a broad approach to immigration reform.
The McCain-Kennedy bill stipulated that illegal immigrants already living in the United States would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English and wait six years before being granted legal residency. Then, they would have to apply for citizenship and wait an additional five years before qualifying for citizenship.
The 11-year process was designed to take longer than the process for foreign nationals who apply for U.S. citizenship in their home countries, Flake said.
“To some, that smacks too much of an amnesty,” Flake said. “I think to most Americans out there, an amnesty is an unconditional pardon for a breach of law. This is hardly that; it’s a tough road.”
Any serious attempt at immigration reform will have to deal with workplace enforcement of immigration laws, experts say. Fences and border enforcement do nothing to counter illegal immigrants who initially crossed the border legally.
As many as half of all illegal immigrants entered the United States with valid visas, then remained after their visas expired, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center in May.
That means as many as 6 million now-illegal immigrants walked right past U.S. customs and immigration officials at airports or other established border-crossing points.
“My position has always been, if you get a good law, then enforce the heck out of it,” Flake said. “But you’ve first got to have a law you can enforce — and one that simply ignores those who are here illegally isn’t something we can go with. You’re just ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room.”
Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., said Democrats will find that a fair amount of the criticism of the McCain-Kennedy bill still lingers. A significant number of lawmakers, particularly Republicans, believed it was too lenient regarding illegal immigrants already living in the United States.
“For those who want to become citizens, I think that pathway ought to be open to them,” Shadegg said. “I just don’t think that it makes sense to take the entire block of 15 million and say, ‘OK, you’re here. You got here under whatever terms you did. Now, we’re going to make you citizens or start you on a path toward citizenship.’”