A long-promised, bi-partisan U.S. Senate bill aimed at comprehensive immigration reform will be delayed until at least March, according to a lobbyist involved in negotiations over the content of the legislation. "The timeline originally was to have a bill by February," said Sonia Ramirez, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO. "Now I think they're shooting at having a detailed outline of the direction they'd like to go in the bill by the end of February." Once the outline is agreed on, she explained, lawyers will draft the text.
The on-again, off again timetable has disappointed immigration reform advocates. Sen. Charles. E. Schumer (D-NY), Chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, who has been working on an immigration bill with South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, indicated during the summer that legislation would be introduced last year "I think we'll have a good bill by Labor Day," Schumer, told the Associated Press last July. But it never materialized.
Before and after the presidential election, Barack Obama also promised that he would move on immigration reform. But a one sentence mention of the subject towards the end of his state of the union speech on Wednesday seemed more like an obligatory item on a to-do list than a rousing call to action: "And we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system," said the President, "to secure our borders and enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation." End of subject.
The following day at a press conference, when a reporter asked Schumer about plans for immigration reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) jumped in with instructions for the New York Senator: "Chuck, let's not get into any deadlines," he cautioned. ""You get into trouble by setting deadlines. It is something we're committed to do. And we'll do it as soon as we can." Schumer was obligingly vague about his plans. "We are making good progress," he said, explaining that he was having difficulty enlisting support from Republican ranks. "Now, I've said all along, even before last Tuesday with the Massachusetts election, that we have to have this bill be a bipartisan bill, two Democrats, two Republicans to introduce it. We're not there yet. We're still working on getting our Republicans." Schumer announced that he had met with former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, whom he said, without elaboration "is changing his views on immigration." It was unclear what contribution, if any, Dobbs would make to the immigration debate.
The AFL-CIO's Ramirez indicated that she and other labor leaders are trying to reach a compromise with business representatives on a complicated section of the bill that would set guidelines to regulate the use of migrant workers on either a temporary or permanent basis. Labor organizations have supported a plan for a new Presidential commission to help establish criteria and calculate labor needs. Business groups have said that they would not accept a commission that could be politicized and not suitably responsive to "market forces." This issue may seem esoteric, but as legislative efforts to enact immigration reform move haltingly along, the ability of labor and business to agree on the fundamentals of migrant worker programs could make the difference between a viable bill and yet another failed effort to fix the broken system. The recently-introduced House immigration bill advocated most forcefully by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and championed by many reform advocates is widely seen as basically dead on arrival because of criticisms from the right that it is too migrant friendly.
Labor's Ramirez suggested that the commission proposal would not be a deal breaker. "In terms of creating a system--let's put the word 'commission' aside--that contemplates economic need and makes decisions on visas based on demonstrated need, that's attractive to us both [business and labor]. So I think there is lots of agreement on how to move forward." Ramirez said that labor would want to insist that migrant workers involved in "future flows" be assured worker protections and rights. Labor is also pushing to make sure that recruiters who bring in foreign workers are better regulated. But she made it clear that the commission idea was more of a subject for negotiation than a key demand. "It's about crafting a system," she said, "not calling it a 'commission.'"
Time is not on the side of immigration reformers. As the 2010 midterm elections approach, politicians on the fence are likely to be seen as loathe to embrace such a controversial issue. One influential senator, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has suggested a more wary piecemeal approach to immigration reform, rather than one big package. Breaking off chunks and dealing separately with the contentious issues of legalization, enforcement, and "future flows" of migrants may seem like a pragmatic short term approach to immigration but is likely to result in once again postponing the issue. And, if it's not going to be dealt with in 2010, it's almost certain to be ignored later on as politicos prepare for the 2012 presidential election year.
After this article first appeared, Sonia Ramirez wrote to clarify the position of the AFL-CIO. Ramirez explained that the AFL-CIO is committed to replacing the "current employment-based immigration system----that is currently arbitrarily set by Congress and is a product of political compromise, without regard to real labor shortages----with a system that assesses labor market needs on an ongoing basis and determines the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment based on demonstrated labor market needs." Ramirez wrote that the AFL-CIO supports "a system that examines the impact of immigration on the economy, wages, the workforce and business. We would never negotiate away these principles," she explained. "If we have to call this entity something else like a "board" or an "authority" we are willing to do that."
Jeffrey Kaye is a veteran journalist and author. His forthcoming book, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley & Sons) will be available in April 2010.