While health care may have been grabbing most of the headlines, the last two weeks have been busy on the immigration front. Just over a week ago, Senators Schumer and Graham released an framework for immigration legislation that they would like to move forward with in the near future. Last Sunday, somewhere between “tens of thousands to more than 200,000″ people descended on the National Mall for the “March for America: Change Takes Courage” to promote immigration reform.
On Tuesday, the House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law held an oversight hearing on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), touching upon a number of programs including E-Verify and the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program, as well as the agency’s Transformation Program, designed to “transition the agency from a paper-based business model to a centralized and consolidated electronic environment.”
Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee marked up two bills – S. 2960 and S. 2974 – that would allow immigrants living in the U.S. legally to work overseas without harming their immigration status. The first bill would exempt immigrants who are refugees or asylum grantees who are working for the federal government oversees to have their immigration status adjusted to permanent resident without being required to be physically in the U.S. for a year. The second would allow permanent residents to go home to assist in recovery efforts in their native country in the time of a disaster without an adverse effect on their opportunity for naturalization here in the U.S.
Also held yesterday was a hearing in the House Homeland Security Committee entitled “Visa Overstays: Can They be Eliminated?” Much of that hearing focused on the development and implementation of a biometric air exit system. Congress first requested an automated entry/exit system in 1996 as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA).. The 9/11 Commission, in its final report, called for the creation of such a system. In 2007, congress mandated the use a system to biometrically track the exit of all foreign visitors from US. Airports by June 30, 2009. That deadline was not met.
During the hearing, Committee Members posed a number of questions to the witnesses, specifically DHS National Protection & Programs Directorate Undersecretary Rand Beers about the future of a biometric air exit system. Members specifically asked why the Department did not request any funding for the air exit program in its Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Request. In response, Beers stated that since no decisions have been made on moving forward with a biometric exist system, it was impossible for the Department to predict costs. He did say that DHS would likely request funds in 2012 and that the estimates for the cost of any exit program could top $1 billion over 10 years. The decision on whether to continue with the program rests with Secretary Napolitano, who is evaluating its future.
Interestingly, even if a program was implemented, the Department – through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – would still have to track those who have overstayed their visas and not left the country. This effort is tremendous, according to testimony given by the DHS IG Richard Skinner and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton. ICE, for its part, has focused on the biggest risks – fugitives, potential terrorists and criminals – in its efforts to track down those who have overstayed.
It is very likely, whatever happens on the comprehensive immigration reform front, that immigration and border security will remain a significant issue for the next several months. Among the things to look out for:
Comprehensive Immigration Reform:
- Will Senators Schumer and Graham’s bill, in the current toxic environment in D.C., be able to garner support this year and be considered?
- If something goes through the Senate, how will the House respond?
- What role will the White House play in shepherding the issue through Congress?
- SBINet- what is its future?
- Air Exit – what is its future?
- How will the increasing violence along the U.S.-Mexico border affect our nation’s border security efforts?