Congress Turns to Immigration Reform

By Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Jeff L. Khurgel

On Saturday, April 10, 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid addressed the issue of immigration reform during a speech in downtown Las Vegas. His words were emphatic, indicating that Congress would start working on an overhaul of immigration policy as soon as lawmakers returned from a recess period.

“We’re going to come back, we’re going to have comprehensive immigration reform now” stated Senator Reid in a speech to a crowd of 6,000, mostly Hispanic supporters. He went on to proclaim: “We need to do this this year,” and “We cannot wait.” This direct commitment to immigration legislation was a pleasant surprise to the immigrant community and reform advocates. Two days later, Senator Reid somewhat backtracked from his unequivocal words, but there is no denying lawmakers are taking the issue of immigration reform off of the back burner, and onto the Congressional agenda.

On April 20th, Senator Reid spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with both reaffirming their commitment to moving immigration reform forward this year, calling it a “moral imperative.” Recently, President Obama, has stepped up his own outreach on the issue. On April 13th, he placed telephone calls to a number of GOP Senators—including Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Scott Brown (Mass.), Judd Gregg (N.H.), George LeMieux (Fla.), and Dick Lugar (Ind.)—to discuss the issue of immigration reform.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan immigration reform bill, introduced in March by Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) is still under consideration.

An outline of the Schumer/Graham legislation calls for illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law, pay a fine and back taxes and perform community service before progressing towards legal status.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle appear closer to realizing that immigration reform is inevitable, if only due to demographics. However, the State of Arizona recently passed a law that seeks to push back efforts for a humane and sustainable immigration policy. On April 23rd, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the nation’s toughest immigration law, making it a state crime for people to be in the U.S. unlawfully and requiring police to question people about their immigration status if officers suspect they are in the U.S. without legal status.

The law has been roundly criticized, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association—among other groups and associations—has vowed to boycott the State of Arizona. In comments made shortly after the passing of the Arizona law, President Obama referred to the measure as “misguided” and stated that the law would “undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.” Constitutional law questions raised by the new law include protections against unreasonable searches, for example, by asking police to stop an individual solely to prove his or her immigration status.

President Obama has stated that he plans to push for immigration reform before the November elections, responding to the frustration of reform advocates. Alluding to the new Arizona measure, he indicated “Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others”. Mr. Obama’s new push reflects a renewed feeling of political strength after the health care bill’s passage that difficult legislation can be accomplished.

As comprehensive immigration reform continues to develop and undergo debate, this newsletter will be updated with the latest information and analysis.