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Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

The U.S. Senate and House have plenty of immigration bills. They just don’t go anywhere. Of the top 34 US immigration bills, 13 have Democrats as sponsors and 21 have Republican sponsors. Only one bill has crossed from one chamber to the other.

The bills address numerous aspects of immigration. HB-1044/SB-386, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019, has bipartisan sponsorship and is farthest along. Silicon Valley Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee are the primary sponsors.

The bill attempts to resolve the backlog of green card applications based on visas used to hire highly skilled H-1B and L visa holders, 80 percent of whom are from India. The backlog is years long. Critics at the Center for Immigration Study argue the bill will harm employers seeking green cards for workers outside the H-1B program. The bill also removes caps on visas by nationality. The Center believes Indians and other interested parties hired lobbyists to persuade legislators that no national caps is a good idea. The bill passed the House in July and is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The BARN Act, or Better Agriculture Resources Now Act, revises the H-2A visa program for temporary non-immigrant agriculture workers. HB-60 has sole sponsor Rep. Rick Allen, R-GA. The bill supports agriculture worker hiring by allowing workers to stay for two years, take a 60 day break, and then return. Other reforms will speed visa processing. The bill is supported by the American Farm Bureau. It moves administration of H-2A from the Department of Labor to the Department of Agriculture. The legislation was introduced in January and was referred to the subcommittee on immigration and citizenship where it sits.

Millions of people are refugees from the 60 countries the US accepts as appropriate for refugee status. Most recently, the majority of refugees come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Ukraine, and Bhutan. The RAISE Act, or Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, was re-introduced in April, 2019 by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-AK. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-FL, of Florida introduced its match, HB-1178, in the House. The bill captures GOP positions on refugee immigration by limiting admissions to 50,000.

The Trump administration currently allows 30,000 refugee admissions, by executive order, according to the National Immigration Forum. The bill moves administration of refugee immigration from the attorney general’s office to the Secretary of Homeland Security. It lowers the age for reuniting refugee children with their parents from 21 to 18. The bill sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Numerous Democratic bills address problems at the southern border with processing asylum seekers and managing illegal crossings. SB-663, sponsored by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-HI, will ensure immigration judges are selected from a pool of qualified attorneys and are protected from political pressure. Her SB-662 provides access to counsel for unaccompanied immigrant minors.

The Families, not Facilities Act, HB-2217/SB388, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-FL, and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, prohibits immigration officers from engaging in inappropriate civil enforcement activities that may harm unaccompanied migrant children. Unaccompanied children may have relatives who are undocumented who can take care of them. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has deported 170 of those relatives, and the children remained in government custody.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR, sponsors SB-2113, the Prevent Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, that sets protections for migrant children in federal custody. The bill arrived in Senate Judiciary in July. A similar bill, SB-1733 sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, is more comprehensive. It limits the separation of children from parents and detention of families and children. It includes providing counsel to unaccompanied immigrant children and increasing the number of judges and support staff that hear cases. It’s in the Senate Judiciary committee.

With the exception of HB-1044/SB-386, no immigration bills have gotten a vote by a full chamber. Congress is in recess and lawmakers have left the Capitol. The president, like so many others before him, will enjoy some golf. And the nation, as on so many issues, awaits action… on the bills… in committee.

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.

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