A bipartisan group of lawmakers known as the “Gang of Eight” formally filed an 844-page immigration bill on the U.S. Senate floor Wednesday. California has a lot at stake in the outcome — and not just because it’s home to many of the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.
The bill contains several major components, including a 13-year pathway to citizenship, new visa programs for low-skilled and high-skilled workers, tweaks to family-based visas and a greater emphasis on employment and education skills.
“The eight senators should be commended for trying to hammer out some concrete proposals dealing with these very complex issues, and there’s room for discussion and debate, criticism and dialogue,” UC Davis law professor and immigration expert Kevin Johnson said.
The bill has potentially big impacts on California agriculture. Growers and farmworker advocates are applauding provisions that would provide farmworkers already in U.S. fields with an expedited path to citizenship, compared with the traditional green card.
Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, said the entire state would benefit, should farmworkers feel free to come out of the shadows.
“If they have security, that means they are also going to invest even more so in the state by buying homes and buying cars and becoming a regular part of California’s economy and its future,” Rodriguez said.
The proposal also calls for sophisticated border surveillance systems, including drones, fences and thousands of new agents patrolling the border with Mexico. That may have visceral appeal to some Americans, but a number of experts argue a quasi-military approach to border security can’t deliver on its promise.
University of San Diego political science professor David Shirk is one of those critics.
“A very significant percentage of undocumented immigrants never cross the border, because they never see the border, because they come here in an airplane or they come by other legal means and then they overstay their visas,” Shirk said. “You’re not going to solve that aspect of the problem by improving border security.”
Shirk said the system the United States has in place now has as much to do with employers hungry for cheap labor as it does with immigrants looking for work.
Silicon Valley Gives a ‘Conditional Thumbs Up’
Some Silicon Valley leaders are encouraged by the Senate’s framework for immigration reform.
Emily Lam, with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, gave the bill a conditional thumbs-up.
“The green cards, the entrepreneur visa and, of course, lifting of the H1B cap — all those things are really good. So, it addresses all the major concerns. We want to see details, so that’s of course my only hesitation,” Lam said.
Dan Turrentine is vice president of government relations and business development at TechNet, a trade group that includes Google, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo. Turrentine said the Senate proposal should increase the total number of green cards going to high-tech workers.
“Overall it’s a thumbs up,” Turrentine said. “But there are things that we want to see improved. Ultimately the system has to be workable for our companies. Otherwise increases in certain numbers are meaningless.”
The Senate framework lifts the cap on H1B visas for foreign tech workers and creates more green cards for engineers and scientists who get graduate degrees here. It’s unclear whether giving visas to one group will mean taking them from another.
The framework also includes the first-ever visa for start-up entrepreneurs. But Craig Montuori of Politihacks worries Congress will add requirements like a master’s degree, which would be contrary to the intent.
“Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell — these were all college dropouts,” Montuori said. “And there’s not a strong correlation between advanced degrees and entrepreneurial success.”
Vivek Wadhwa, a legal fellow at Stanford, worries the Senate’s comprehensive reform proposes so many things, it won’t win enough votes to pass.
“The tech industry can’t look at this and start celebrating saying, ‘Hey we got what we wanted.’ There’s nothing clear cut in it,” Wadhwa said.
Many Silicon Valley lobbyists have signed on to comprehensive reform, but they agree it’s a fragile framework that could unravel.
Early Opposition to the Bill
Some people are already lining up to oppose the bill before all the details are hashed out in the coming months.
Raymond Herrera is the founder of the group We the People. He opposes any legislation that would include a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
“The American people do not stand with Obama, McCain, the Gang of Eight, either the Senate nor the House,” Herrera said. “These people are actually working to subvert our government, our way of life, our culture and we will resurrect the American democracy in the favor of the American people.”
According to the Washington Post, opponents of the proposal on Capitol Hill are “coalescing around a strategy to kill the bill by delaying the legislative process as long as possible.”
That would provide the time and the opportunity to lard the bill with “poison pill” amendments.
That’s how the immigration proposal of 2007 sank before it came to the floor for a vote, under the weight of unpopular amendments.
President Barack Obama is urging fast passage this time around. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York says the hope is to have the Judiciary Committee open the bill for amendments in early May and get it to the Senate floor by early June.