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House immigration enforcement bill: What does it bode for reform?

A controversial 2005 House bill was credited for sparking the 2006 immigration rights marches; a similarly strict enforcement bill is again pending in Congress.
A controversial 2005 House bill was credited for sparking the 2006 immigration rights marches; a similarly strict enforcement bill is again pending in Congress. Photo by jeromebot/Flickr (Creative Commons)

It isn't shaping up to be a great week for immigration reform in Congress.

In the Senate, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama is referring to the comprehensive reform bill pending before lawmakers as a dead mackerel ("The longer it lays in the sun, the more it smells") ,as he and like-minded lawmakers work for its defeat.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner announced Tuesday that he wouldn't bring an immigration bill up for a floor vote unless it's supported by a majority of his fellow Republicans, many of whom oppose a path to citizenship for immigrants now in the U.S. illegally, as the Senate bill proposes.

Then there's the House bill known as the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, or SAFE Act, which House lawmakers began debating on Tuesday. Its provisions harken to the days of the last immigration reform debate, when the House was putting out similarly strict enforcement proposal s— and comprehensive reform plans fell flat.

The proposal, otherwise called H.R. 2278, is from Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina. It's an enforcement bill along the lines of a 2005 bill, the reaction to which was credited with helping to inspire the massive immigration rallies of 2006. That bill died, but a similar approach lives in the new bill, which calls for:

  • Allowing states and jurisdictions to set their own immigration enforcement policies so long as they conform with federal law
  • Giving state and local law enforcement agencies wider berth to enforce immigration laws
  • Directing more money to local police for immigration enforcement purposes
  • Calling for the construction and expansion of more immigrant detention space
  • Expanding the circumstances under which immigrants can be held in mandatory detention and deported
  • Increasing criminal penalties for illegal entry and presence

Backers of the bill say the goal is to deter future illegal entries, assuming there is an immigration overhaul that grants legal status to some people already here. Here's what Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) told USA Today:

"It contemplates that there's going to be a legal status for them," Goodlatte said. "This is to deal with future enforcement of the law. My understanding from the outset of this whole effort ... was that nothing was going to happen unless everything happened. Our intention is to deal with all areas of immigration reform."

But the bill has prompted an outcry from immigration reform advocates, who say it would criminalize unauthorized immigrants who are living here now and would otherwise be eligible for legal status under the pending Senate bill. Anti-detention advocates have also complained, saying the bill would funnel more dollars into the immigrant detention business, in which private prison contractors play a large role.

The tone of the bill is a far cry from that of the comprehensive bill pending in the Senate, and that in itself doesn't necessarily bode well for the larger immigration reform effort.

In spite of opposition, the Senate bill has been moving along and remains relatively intact. On Tuesday, senators voted down an amendment that would have blocked most unauthorized immigrants from permanent legal status until the federal government completed building 700 miles of double-layered border fence.

Meanwhile, House leaders have promised to soon deliver a comprehensive plan, but have blown self-imposed deadlines as they've struggled over details. Stand-alone bills are favored by many conservative House members who prefer a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, and one more heavily focused on enforcement. And if the nature of this first stand-alone House bill is any indication, reaching a compromise will be tough — even if the Senate plan passes.

As for the 2006 and 2007 immigration reform bills, the first one passed in the Senate but died in the House. The second never made it out of the Senate.

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