Immigration Reform Debate Heats Up

Some key players in White House immigration policy have seen career setbacks in recent weeks.

Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson (search) resigned altogether from the Department of Homeland Security shortly after the president did not select him to replace nominee Bernard Kerik (search).

Rep. Chris Cannon (search), who in only mid-January was telling the press that he would do everything in his power to see his guest worker program passed, had resigned from the House Immigration Subcommittee by the end of the month.

Some observers have wondered if these resignations are mere coincidence or if they are signs that the White House is repositioning itself for its version of immigration reform, the primary feature of which is a massive guest worker program (search) (read “amnesty”).

We will know soon. House Bill 418 (search), which represents all of Rep. James Sensenbrenner’s work of the past several months, looks destined to become part of the Iraq supplemental spending bill -- a “must pass” bill -- in the Senate. It includes provisions that make it impossible for individuals deported from the U.S. to be released on their own recognizance, and the only way for such individuals to avoid incarceration is to post a minimum $10,000 bond.

Senators John McCain and Larry Craig have promised that if Sensenbrenner’s HB 418 is attached to the Iraq supplemental, they will attach their own guest worker bills to it.

It’s as if there is nothing one legislator can do to strengthen immigration enforcement that another won’t foil with a measure that legalizes the status of millions of illegal aliens.

But the bills alluded to by McCain and Craig have dwindling support. McCain’s is far too expansive to ever have gained a serious chance of passage. Craig’s bill was originally authored by the recently resigned Chris Cannon, and Craig introduced it in the Senate with 30 fewer co-sponsors than last year.

The Iraq supplemental spending bill is something guaranteed debate on the Senate floor and abundant press coverage. Its debate might mark the first time in years that a large group if Americans will see immigration measures debated on C-Span (search) and perhaps even the nightly network news.

And it may become clear just how divided Congress is on the issue of immigration. Put simply, on one side are members (and their contributors) who regard America as a marketplace, and on the other are members (and their constituents) who regard America as a nation.

It may become clear that, notwithstanding Congressional efforts to legalize, rather than deport, illegal aliens, America has a system of legal immigration that gives an employer the right to import a human being if, for example, a father applying for a meat packing job in Postville, Iowa, needs to make more than the $6.67 per hour prevailing wage set by the Department of Labor in order to support his wife and two children. (For a family of four, that wage is 25 percent below poverty level (search).)

Americans may see that, by and large, even the system of legal immigration in America operates to drive the most vulnerable of its citizens deeper into misery.

There can be speculation as to why Rep. Cannon and Undersecretary Hutchinson have resigned their positions. What’s clear is that two of the lightning rods for criticism by ordinary Americans are now offstage, which gives the impression that the guest worker program wanted by the White House is something moderate and palatable to Americans. But it’s just the “any willing worker for any willing employer” bill that the White House has been pushing for years.

The Americans most affected by the proposed measures might never know the intricacies of the debate. At $6.67 an hour, meatpackers in Postville probably can't afford to watch C-Span on cable TV.

Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994, representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He is the author of the soon to be published, "The New Immigration Law and Practice."

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