Two Immigration Reform Bills in 2023 Congress, Will Updating Immigration Finally Happen?

by Edwin Quinabo

It’s long overdue that the country’s immigration system be updated and modernized, most politicians on both sides of the political spectrum can agree on this.

But according to Pew Research Center, Republicans and Democrats differ over the most pressing priorities for immigration, which some politicos say is the root of the decades-long inaction on this issue.

Congress hasn’t passed a comprehensive reform bill since 1986. This impasse to get legislation done have many immigrant advocates and politicians saying this is the reason why the current immigration situation has become dire, urgent, chaotic and unjust. A snapshot of the current immigration situation include:

*As of June 2023, approximately 16.8 million illegal immigrants reside in the United States, according to FAIR. This is significantly higher than their January 2022 illegal immigrant population estimate of 15.5 million. This rise comes as the number of people apprehended for illegally crossing the southern border has reached record annual levels. Rise in both illegal entry and arrests suggests a greater need for more border enforcement resources and new opportunities to enter legally.

*Economic globalism and climate change – among some pressing reasons — have led to increasingly harsh conditions (in some cases that include persecution) in developing countries that have spiked the number of asylum-seeking immigrants at the U.S. southern border. This has put an economic strain on American border cities and the large cities where these asylum-seekers eventually settle until their case is decided. City-state governments across the nation have been calling on the federal government (immigration is a mostly federal issue) for financial support and action on immigration reform.

*More than 4 million relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents are stuck in Green Card backlogs, according to the State Department. This means millions of families are separated, often waiting for years, before they can be reunited.

*Labor shortages in several industries from high tech to crop picking-farming that could be filled by immigrant guest workers but aren’t due to an outdated guest worker program are keeping the U.S. economy from growing, industry experts and Chambers of Commerce across the nation say.

All of these areas of immigration – illegal entry and enforcement, adjusting asylum laws, family-based green card backlogs and employment-guest workers visas – must be acted on by Congress for a more permanent solution. Executive orders are temporary band-aid attempts to immigration and limited in scope, experts say.

But urgency hasn’t sparked action, even in the rare cases where either Democrats or Republicans have had control of both houses of Congress and the presidency at the same time (unified government or single-party rule), immigrant advocates say. Most recently Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump enjoyed a unified government but failed to update immigration.

Such missed opportunities under single-party rule have the most cynical political observers questioning if in fact Republican politicians want immigration problems solved considering how much they rely on them for votes (using scare tactics) or that Democrat politicians really do not prioritize immigration matters enough that they keep placing immigration behind other issues. Trump exploited the illegal immigrant “horde invasion;” while Obama used up most of his political capital on healthcare.

But has the time finally come for action? Will 2023 be a breakthrough year for immigration reform?

The Republican-majority House this year passed an immigration reform bill that President Joe Biden vowed to veto. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the GOP bill could spark bipartisan negotiations, meaning it is a start, a bill that could be worked on.

There is another comprehensive immigration reform bill, a bipartisan bill called the Dignity Act, led by Reps. María Elvira Salazar (R-FL) and Veronica Escobar (D-TX). It was introduced at the time the Debt Ceiling debates took precedence over all issues. It’s too soon to determine if this bipartisan bill will remain overshadowed or if it moves into the spotlight in the coming weeks.

For many in the Filipino community whose interest in immigration reform is in part largely focused on family-based immigration, specifically making it easier and faster for green cards to be approved for their relatives, neither the Republican bill nor bipartisan Dignity Act addresses this concern. One part of Dignity Act addresses H-2A guestworker program, another area of specific interest for the Filipino community.

Even as family-based immigration makes up about 65% of annual lawful immigration, including nearly 85% of new immigrant arrivals to the U.S. over the last decade – the priorities on immigration for Republicans are set on border security and for Democrats a pathway to legalization for a select group of qualified illegals such as the DREAMERS.

Neither immigration reform packages for the 2023 Congress, as it currently stands, are comprehensive enough even if they were passed, if family-based immigration were left out of the final product, immigrant communities say.

New York-based immigration attorney and former HFC immigration columnist Reuben Seguritan, says it’s time for immigration reform to pass Congress. “Our immigration system is broken. Millions live in the shadows, and they are taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers. Immigration reform will improve the enforcement of our laws, and this will make it easier to identify those that do not abide by our rules,” he said.

On making it faster and easier for families of immigrants to be reunited, Atty. Seguritan said, “This would create stable immigrant communities that will provide a better environment for business to thrive. Even high-skilled workers have families, too. Employment-based visas should also be faster and easier to get to promote global competitiveness, create more jobs and increase wages. It will also increase production and reduce unemployment.”

Atty. Seguritan is a second-generation American whose family emigrated from the Philippines. His paternal grandfather journeyed to America in the 1920s and ended up a railroad track worker. His mother’s brother came at about the same time, worked as a sugarcane cutter in Hawaii and later, a grapes picker in California. Then the husband of his father’s sister arrived, joined the U.S. Army in 1942. It was through him that Seguritan’s father immigrated to the U.S.

“My turn came five decades after my grandfather’s sojourn in America. But the circumstances of my coming to America were different. I did not come to work, to seek a space in the countryside nor eventually be an American,” he said.

Seguritan practiced law in New York for 50 years. He fought against the deportation of Filipino nurses and the repatriation move against Filipino doctors in the 1970s and 1980s. He also advocated for Filipino American causes such ad dual citizenship, overseas voting rights and the fight of Filipino war veterans for citizenship and benefits.

He and Dr. Jean Raymundo Lobell co-founded the Filipino American Human Services, Inc. (FAHSI), an organization that provides social services to disadvantaged Filipinos in the New York area. It focused on citizenship and immigration issues the first two years, then added other services.

“Immigrants make the country better as they contribute immensely to our economy. There are not enough workers, especially low-skilled and this is preventing employers from filling millions of jobs. Worker shortage drive inflation and higher interest rates,” Atty. Seguritan said.

The 2023 Bipartisan Dignity Act features
One part of the Dignity Act addresses the problem Atty. Seguritan raises. The Act would streamline the unpopular H-2A guestworker program, eliminating the seasonal requirements and creating “a year-round Agricultural Workforce.” It would streamline the application process, enabling employers to apply to several agencies on a single platform. It would also eliminate the “complicated and unpredictable Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR),” a formula calculated on a state-by-state basis requiring minimum wages for H-2A workers to avoid depressing domestic wage rates. The law would also allow staggered entry to enable starting dates at different times of the year to facilitate planning.

Three other major features of the bill:

*on Border Security, the Act mandates the Department of Homeland Security to deploy physical barriers, infrastructure and advanced technology along the southern border. This provision authorizes the allocation of funds to improve the Infrastructure and Technology at Ports of Entry, ensuring more efficient and effective border control.

*on reforming the Asylum system, the Act recognizing the need for timely and fair determination. Under the proposed changes, individuals seeking asylum would receive a final determination of their eligibility within 60 days of submitting application. This process aims to prevent the release of individuals into the U.S. while they await their immigration court proceedings, which often take years to conclude. The process would be streamlined to enable decisions to be made faster. The bill also aims to reduce the backlog of asylum cases.

*on pathway to legal residency, the Act grants Dreamers, including those protected under DACA, a pathway to residency. It establishes a seven-year Deferred Action Program that provides employment authorization and travel authorization to undocumented immigrants who have been residing continuously in the U.S. for at least five years prior to the bill becoming law.

As bipartisan a bill this is, politicos expect the bill could face challenges. What’s bipartisan about the bill? Republicans get the allocating resources for border security and modifying the asylum system. Democrats get a path to legalization for undocumented individuals. Both parties tend to support the changes to the guest workers program.

Family-based immigration reform that Democrats favor was left out probably likely for the bill to have a better chance at passing, even as the extraordinary wait times for a green card to be available causes significant hardship for American families forced to wait decades to reunite with their loved ones.

Only 65,452 family preference green cards were issued in FY2021 out of the annual 226,000 green cards available.

Democrat congressional representatives from southern border cities – like Rep Escobar of El Paso leading the Democratic side pushing for the Dignity Act – tend to be more supportive than the typical Democrat on border security funding allocation because they see first-hand how massive asylum-seeking immigrants of late and illegal immigrants are impacting their communities.

Rep. Escobar will have a challenge to get some of her colleagues on board with this bill. President Biden has chosen Escobar to be a part of his core reelection campaign, and this could have a positive sway in this bill. President Biden visited El Paso this year to assess the border crossing situation of those seeking entry by asylum.

“Asylum seekers with a valid claim of persecution should be allowed to enter but they should be preapproved before seeking entry and should be capped. Applications should be processed in an orderly and safe manner,” Atty. Seguritan said.

The Dignity Act doesn’t address caps or mode of entry. But the Biden administration through executive order has been working on a prescreening process for asylum seekers and promoting air travel for asylum seekers in South America to help alleviate the massive congestion at border ports-of-entry.

The 2023 GOP Immigration Bill
The GOP bill makes it harder for migrants to qualify for asylum. It curbs the government’s authority to allow certain migrants to come to the U.S. legally under a form of humanitarian protection known as parole. It permits migrant children to be detained for months with their parents and cracks down on employment of undocumented immigrants.

The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to resume construction of a border wall that President Donald Trump started but halted by President Biden. The bill invests more in border security, technology and personnel.

Arguably the most controversial provision of the GOP bill would limit federal funding to nongovernmental organizations that assist migrants. What this means is many NGOs that currently help cities facilitate migrants with processing and temporary housing would have their already limited federal funding dramatically reduced, which places extra burden on cities receiving migrants.

Teresita G. Bernales, Kailua, Hawaii, an immigrant makes the point that the present quota on migrants coming into the U.S. was established by the UN High Commission Refugees. She said, “Of the UN country member 135 nations signed on to help with the issue (immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.) The responsibility is collectively shared UNCHR. President Biden affirmed the United States’ commitment to welcoming refugees by increasing the total admissions ceilings in the FY 2022 and FY 2023 Presidential Determinations on Refugee Admissions to 125,000, the highest target in several decades. His decision reflects the United States’ long-standing leadership on refugee resettlement in the face of an unprecedented global displacement crisis as record numbers of people around the world have been forced to flee war, persecution, and instability. Over 100 million people are now forcibly displaced, more than at any other time in history.

“Under international law, a refugee is a person who has fled their own country of nationality or habitual residence and cannot return due to fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. These recent migration movements are caused by a variety of reasons,” Bernales said.

Each year, the President of the United States sends a proposal to the Congress for the maximum number of refugees to be admitted for the upcoming fiscal year, as specified under INA section 207. Congress reserves the right to approve or reject that number.

People who seek protection while outside the U.S. are termed refugees, while people who seek protection from inside the U.S. are termed asylum seekers

The majority of asylum claims in the United States fail or are rejected.  While asylum denial rates had grown ever higher during the Trump years to a peak of 71% in FY 2020, they fell to 63% in FY 2021.  One third of asylum seekers go to courts unrepresented. Those with legal representation have higher chances of winning their case.

In an affirmative asylum process, a USCIS officer decides whether the individual will be granted asylum in the U.S. If USCIS denies an asylum application in the affirmative asylum process, the applicant’s case will be sent to an immigration judge by request of the applicant. Ultimately asylum cases in the U.S. are decided by immigration judges at the Justice Department.

Bernales said, “There is a process in place and if followed will result in an orderly and humane approach to this issue, the influx of asylum seekers.  Drug cartels and human smuggling operations are exploiting chaos at the border to overwhelm Border Patrol agents’ resources, place migrants in peril, traffic deadly narcotics, and bring criminals into the United States.”

Bernales supports updating the nation’s immigration system. On immigrants’ impact in the U.S., she said, “As for economic effects, research suggests that migration is beneficial both to the receiving and sending countries. With few exceptions, immigration on average has positive economic effects on the native population but is mixed as to whether low-skilled immigration adversely affects underprivileged natives.

“The academic literature provides mixed findings for the relationship between immigration and crime worldwide but finds for the US that immigration either has no impact on the crime rate or that it reduces the crime rate. Research shows that country of origin matters for the speed and depth of immigrant assimilation, but that there is considerable assimilation overall for both first- and second-generation immigrants.

“Research has found extensive evidence of discrimination against foreign-born and minority populations in criminal justice, business, the economy, housing, health care, media, and politics in the United States and Europe,” Bernales said.

On her own immigrant experience, Bernales said she came to the U.S. on an educational scholarship with an Exchange J-1 Visa. “I did my advanced degree work under this program.  The economic and political situation in the Philippines during that time was tumultuous. From all accounts, safety, economic security, and upward mobility were unpredictable. Upon nearing the completion of my studies, I decided that I will seek employment here so I can stay longer and eventually apply for permanent residency and then citizenship. God has been good, and I was able to carry out my plans. I got married and started a family too.  Our sons are grown and very successful in their endeavors. My husband and I are enjoying retirement while actively involved in church and community volunteer work.”

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