Senate Approves Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill


The Senate voted 62 to 36 to approve compromise immigration reform
legislation (S. 2611, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of
2006), thereby setting the stage for what will likely be a contentious
House/Senate conference, in which the Senate-passed bill will now have
to be harmonized with the harsh, enforcement-only bill (H.R. 4437)
passed by the House in December. Despite attempts by a handful of
Senators to fundamentally alter the bill that was reported out of the
Senate Judiciary Committee in March, the basic architecture of
comprehensive immigration reform survived intact after nearly four
weeks of Senate Floor debate on the measure and votes on more than 40

The Senate bill includes a path to permanent legal status for most
of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, a new
temporary worker program, significant increases in family- and
employment-based permanent visas, important reforms to the agricultural
worker program, significant reforms to the high-skilled immigration
programs, and relief for undocumented high school graduates (DREAM
Act). The bill also includes some very harsh enforcement provisions and
erosion of due process protections that will need to be addressed and
corrected as negotiations move forward.

Senators tackled several controversial issues today before voting
for the bill’s passage. The first of these was an amendment (No. 4097)
offered by Senator Cornyn (R-TX) that would strike provisions in the
bill that would preserve the confidentiality of information furnished
by applicants for legalization and allow government agencies to share
an undocumented immigrant’s personal information if his or her
application and all appeals for legal status have been denied.
Opponents of the amendment argued that striking these important
safeguards would serve as a major disincentive for undocumented
immigrants to come out of the shadows and participate in the program.

The Senate rejected the Cornyn amendment on a tie vote of 49-49.

Senator Bingaman (D-NM) offered an amendment (No. 4131) that would
cap the number of employment-based immigrant visas available to workers
and their immediate relatives at 650,000 visas. This is a net reduction
of several hundred thousand permanent visas compared to the number that
would be available under the current bill. Thirty percent of the
worldwide visas would be available annually to workers in the new H-2C
category. Under the Bingaman amendment that number would be
approximately 200,000 (30% of 650,000). At a rate of 200,000 H-2C
temporary worker entrants per year plus another 200,000 derivative
spouses and children, there could be 400,000 entrants vying for 200,000
slots in a given year. The result would be a backlog in immigrant visas
growing by 200,000 per year. Senator Bingaman argued that his amendment
was designed to establish certainty about how many individuals would be
eligible for permanent status under this bill. However, opponents
responded that the amendment would create significant uncertainty as to
how many workers could pursue permanent residence in any given year.
Indeed, they added, the spouses and children of principals from one
preference category could end up taking slots that would otherwise be
allocated to employment based principals in another high demand
preference category.

The Bingaman amendment was nonetheless approved by a vote of 51 to 47.

Next up was Senator Feingold (D-WI), with an amendment (No. 4083)
that would strike an obscure provision in the bill-section 227(c)-that
was added during Committee markup without any discussion, and with
little awareness by most Members or staff that it had been included.
Section 227(c) would bar federal courts from staying the deportation of
any immigrant with a final removal order unless he or she shows by
“clear and convincing evidence” that deportation is prohibited as a
matter of law. This heightened standard would make it virtually
impossible for most asylum seekers, domestic abuse victims, and human
trafficking victims to obtain stays of deportation while their cases
are on appeal to the federal courts, resulting in grave, potentially
life-threatening consequences for legitimate asylum seekers. Section
227(c) also would cause the United States to violate the United Nations
Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which
prohibits the return of individuals to countries where they will face
persecution. This same provision was stricken by the Senate during the
conference negotiations over the REAL ID Act.

Senators approved the Feingold amendment on a vote of 52 to 45.

Senator Sessions (R-AL) was next on deck, with an amendment (No.
4108) that would deny eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit to
aliens adjusting their status under either the new H-2C guestworker
program, the earned adjustment program for undocumented immigrants
currently present in the country, or the AgJobs program.

The Sessions amendment was rejected by a vote of 37 to 60.

Senator Ensign (R-NV) offered the final amendment to the bill, which
was similar to the Sessions amendment above. The Ensign amendment (No.
4136) would preclude an alien who legalizes under the bill’s earned
adjustment program from collecting any tax refund for tax years prior
to 2006, even if he or she paid all of taxes on time and is owed the
refund because of an inadvertent overpayment or an IRS error. In
addition, the amendment would preclude such individuals from filing a
claim for the Earned Income Tax Credit or any other tax credits for tax
years prior to 2006, potentially requiring legalized immigrants to pay
more taxes than other people.

Senators approved the Ensign amendment on a vote of 50 to 47.

After the Ensign vote, Senators turned to a manager’s amendment, a
package of numerous individual amendment agreed to in advance by both
sides that would make a number of fixes to the underlying bill. We have
not yet seen the text of the amendment so we don’t know with any
certainty what changes were included.

Senators voted 56 to 41 (with one Member voting “present”) to
approve the manager’s amendment after which a final vote on the bill
was ordered.

The Senate approved S. 2611 by a vote of 62 to 36.

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