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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

GOP Readies Immigration Measures - After President’s Action Curbing Deportations, Congressional Republicans Look to Shape Further Change; Department of Homeland Security’s funding will run out at the end of February, an arrangement aimed at giving the GOP leverage over the president. But GOP leaders have also said they would work to ensure the agency’s funding doesn’t expire, so it is unclear whether or how they can use the appropriations bill to force Mr. Obama’s hand.

From The Wall Street Journal:

WASHINGTON—Republicans in Congress are preparing a variety of bills that would make substantial changes to the immigration system, suggesting that the embers of interest in addressing immigration law, once thought to be extinguished, remain alive.

GOP leaders in both the House and Senate had said President Barack Obama had “poisoned the well’’ when he acted without congressional approval last month to shelter some four million illegal immigrants from deportation.

While many Republicans say the top priority must be to undo Mr. Obama’s unilateral action, the new efforts to write and pass immigration legislation, coming as Republicans prepare to take full control of Congress, show that some lawmakers are eager to navigate their own proposals into law, as well.

The Republican efforts begin with measures tightening security on the Southwest border—a top concern of GOP lawmakers—but go beyond that to include legislation favored by high-tech, agricultural and other business interests that would make more workers available to those sectors.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have said they want to use their strengthened hand in the next Congress to notch legislative achievements, but it is unclear whether they would back any of the emerging immigration bills. Another question is whether the party would insist that any bill include a reversal of Mr. Obama’s action protecting illegal immigrants. The White House has promised to veto any legislation that scales back his policy. Mr. Obama might also object to the bills on their face.

Among the signs of legislative activity: A House committee is preparing border-security legislation for action early in 2015. Veteran GOP lawmakers have drafted bills offering additional visas both for low-skilled and high-tech workers. Bipartisan discussions are under way in the Senate on legislation to revamp the visa program for farm workers.

Democrats, even those who oppose the Obama executive action, say the best course remains for Congress to pass a comprehensive bill that fixes a range of immigration problems, including help for undocumented residents.

“We need a practical plan that strengthens our borders, addresses the systemic problems with our legal immigration policies and provides a tough, fair process for those who want to earn the opportunity for citizenship,” said a recent letter to congressional leaders from Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

In the House, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee is preparing a border-security bill aimed at better measuring illegal crossings, with targeted improvements in equipment and technology along the Southwest border. On the Senate side, the incoming chairman of the Homeland Security Committee said in an interview that he hopes to have a framework for a border-security bill ready by late January.

“We want to set our own agenda on this,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), chairman of the House committee. House leaders have asked him to have a border bill ready for action by late January or February, committee aides said.

Mr. McCaul and some other Republicans say action on a border bill could open political space for legislation on other aspects of the immigration system. “My bill passing, hopefully in the early part of next year, can lay the groundwork for other measures,” Mr. McCaul said.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), the incoming chairman of the Senate committee, said he anticipated advancing border legislation that would provide additional surveillance, fencing, a better visa-tracking system and possibly stronger workplace enforcement through mandatory use of E-Verify, an electronic system for employers to check the legal status of potential employees.

“Once we pass a strong border security enforcement bill, we’ll turn our attention to the other things, as well” to adjust immigration policy, Mr. Johnson said.

An official close to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who sets the House agenda, said border security would be a priority for the incoming House. It remains unclear whether a bill acceptable to Republicans would also pass muster with Mr. Obama and other Democrats, who have long insisted that legalization for those in the U.S. illegally be included along with any increase in enforcement. Moreover, House Republicans have often suggested they want to move immigration bills without ever doing so.

A GOP committee aide said that a rollback of the executive action might initially be attached to the border bill but would have to eventually be stripped.

“If the intent is to pass a bill I’d want this decoupled. Otherwise, it will be vetoed,” he said.

Other Republicans are preparing legislation to address additional aspects of the immigration system. Rep. Raúl Labrador (R., Idaho), a onetime immigration attorney, plans two bills, an aide said.

One would create a temporary worker program that would allow as many as 350,000 foreigners to enter the country each year for construction, restaurant and other low-skilled jobs. These workers would have most of the labor rights afforded in a broad immigration bill that passed the Senate last year, such as the right to change jobs.

Labor unions and some conservatives are sure to argue that Mr. Labrador’s annual cap on foreign workers, at 350,000, is too high. Last year’s Senate bill, the product of negotiations between labor and business leaders, included a complicated formula for determining the visa cap, but it set the maximum at about 200,000 a year.

Mr. Labrador’s second bill would aid some illegal immigrants by repealing rules known as the “three- and 10-year bars,” which effectively prevent undocumented immigrants from winning legal status through normal channels, such as an employment visa or marrying an American citizen. The existing rules require those who have been in the country illegally for longer than a year to return to their home country for 10 years before becoming eligible for legal status here. Those in the U.S. illegally for more than six months, but less than a year, must return home for three years.

Meanwhile, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) plans to introduce legislation making more visas available for high-tech workers, a spokesman said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) is working on a bill revamping the agricultural visa program, based on provisions in last year’s Senate bill. Her staff is in talks on the measure with Republicans including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who helped work out a compromise on this issue in 2013.

Both measures are priorities for industry—high-tech companies want access to more foreign programmers and engineers, while agriculture companies want changes to the farm worker program.

It isn’t clear whether these stand-alone measures could win sufficient support to pass on their own, or whether Mr. Obama would sign them even if his executive action was left intact. In the past, the president has emphasized the need for legislation that addresses all elements of the immigration system, including a legalization program for the undocumented.

The most immediate immigration issue in early 2015 will be whether the GOP attempts to use the appropriations process to try and unravel Mr. Obama’s executive action.

The Department of Homeland Security’s funding will run out at the end of February, an arrangement aimed at giving the GOP leverage over the president. But GOP leaders have also said they would work to ensure the agency’s funding doesn’t expire, so it is unclear whether or how they can use the appropriations bill to force Mr. Obama’s hand.

Frank Sharry, who heads the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said he would urge Democrats to oppose any enforcement bill that isn’t balanced with some sort of legalization program.

“We are against pieces moving without balance,” he said.

Mr. Johnson, the Wisconsin GOP senator, said that Democrats have already gotten their half of the bargain through Mr. Obama’s unilateral action. Between the recent executive action and one in 2012 that aided young people, some five million illegal immigrants are now eligible for a temporary reprieve from deportation and work permits.

“By and large, the Democrats got what they have been looking for on their part of the bargain. Now it is time to give the American people what they’ve wanted,” he said.

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