Will the 2006 Immigration Reform Act Pass?

By Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Jeremiah Johnson

As an immigration attorney, I am asked daily, “Will current immigration reform become law?” The answer ultimately depends on the word “will,” or more specifically – political will. Immigration reform has always been a heated debate, however this past month has seen the debate take center stage in our national dialogue. From mainstream media to our local news sources, everyone is talking about, and continues to talk about, immigration reform.

Currently the debate lies with the Senators. Three weeks ago, the Senate took up a serious debate on the competing immigration proposals. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Senator Specter, urged for a more comprehensive immigration reform. The Committee’s proposal included “gold cards” (also known as “amnesty”) and a temporary guest worker program. Senate Majority Leader Frist offered an alternative proposal focusing almost exclusively on enforcement and border security. Senator First’s proposal is similar to the House version (HR4437). With two such different approaches to immigration reform, the Senate seemed at an impasse.

Despite the competing views, the Senate reached a “compromise.” The Senate compromise (over 600 pages) provides a route for undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years to gain lawful status. To do so, applicants would need to meet certain requirements including passing background checks, learning English and paying back taxes and additional penalties. The compromise also combined the elements of a guest worker program with border security provisions.

Although what at first seemed to be a political victory, it turned out that politics would cause the compromise to falter. The Senate compromise failed to receive the 60 needed votes to clear a procedural hurdle and immigration reform appeared to stall. Democrats accused Republicans and Republicans accused Democrats for this failure. However, the one group that seemed not to be deterred were immigrants and immigrant supporters. Massive demonstrations were held around the country denouncing the enforcement only and criminalization approaches while supporting a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Politics again played its part and politicians appear to have heard the demonstrator’s call for immigration reform. The Senators are now back at work and this time President Bush has voiced his support for the compromise and a comprehensive immigration reform law that would include a guest worker program. President Bush is also putting pressure on some House Republicans to accept the Senate version. On the House side, Speaker Dennis Hastert says he wants a guest worker program as well. It looks like this time there is real momentum (and perhaps even real political will) for a comprehensive immigration reform that will look more like the Senate compromise and less like the House enforcement only bill. Will the compromise hold together? Will Congress enact a comprehensive immigration reform law? As with many questions before Congress, the answer lies in whether there will be political will or political will not.

We hope this Congress passes the comprehensive immigration reform act badly needed by the hardworking immigrants. However, even if no law is passed by the current Congress, immigrants should not lose hope as more immigrant friendly representatives may be elected during the mid-term elections in November.