Federal Legislation Update: August 2017

Many immigration related bills have been introduced in 2017 in the 115th Congress. Most have little chance of passage or are not yet in play. Just a few of interest are noted here.

  • The Dream Act of 2017, S. 1615, H.R. 3440

Introduced in July with bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Dream Act of 2017 would allow immigrants who came to the U.S. while under age 18, who lived in the U.S. at least 4 years prior to the bill’s enactment, who completed high school or their G.E.D., or who have DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, and who meet certain other conditions (medical exam, background checks), to apply for conditional residency, valid for 8 years.  While conditional residents, if they meet various conditions including completing at least 2 years of honorable military service or at least two years of higher education, or performing substantial work for at least 3 years, they would be able to apply for permanent residency. The bill would also protect immigrant youth in elementary, middle or high school, until they are eligible to apply after getting their high school diploma or their GED.

Estimates are that the Dream Act of 2017 would immediately benefit nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants, with an estimated 1.5 million more who would eventually qualify once they complete high school or get their GED.  With legal status, they can pursue more educational opportunities and better jobs, so that they can reach and contribute to their full potential in the U.S.

The U.S. has already invested in these youth, and for many, this country is the only home they can remember.  With our shrinking labor pool as “Baby Boomers” retire, helping these “DREAMers” gain permanent residency  in the U.S. is not only the right thing to do, it’s economically smart for our country.

  • The Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2017, S.1034, H.R. 2690

 This bill would allow farmworkers who have performed at least 100 days of agricultural work in the U.S. in each of the two years preceding the bill’s enactment, and who meet other conditions, to apply for temporary residency (the “Blue Card”).   Both seasonal agricultural visa holders and undocumented farmworkers would be eligible.   After working for a defined period in agriculture during three to five additional years, Blue Card holders who also meet other conditions could apply for permanent residency, and would no longer be tied to farm work.

The bill would help potentially millions of farmworkers who have lived in the U.S. for many years without documentation to come out of the shadow economy and regularize their status.  They could then pay taxes (and would be required to prove that they have, prior to gaining residency), pursue educational goals, and improve their and their families’ lives.

  • The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, S. 1720.

Introduced by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue and backed by President Trump, this bill would slash the overall number of immigrants to the U.S., chiefly by gutting family-based immigration.   It would immediately reduce the total number of family-based immigrants allowed each year by more than 40% from current levels, and eliminate most categories of family members presently eligible (including children who have have already turned 18, and parents, married children, and siblings of U.S. citizens). It would also eliminate the Diversity Visa lottery, and cap the number of refugees allowed in each year at 50,000.

The bill would create a new “points” system for employment-based immigration. Individuals with English fluency, post-graduate degrees in STEM or professional fields, younger workers, and those with high paying job offers or independent wealth to invest in the U.S. would be given the highest priority, apart from Nobel Laureates and Olympic individual medalists or other world class athletes, who would be granted special points. Under the proposed points system, total employment-based visas would be capped at 140,000 annually, which is fewer than the number granted for each the three most recent fiscal years for which we have complete data.

While the bill’s sponsors state it will strengthen our nation’s economy, there is broad opposition to that view from economists, business leaders, academics and others, including members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.  A small sampling of the early reaction to the RAISE Act:

The Bipartisan Policy Center

The Cato Institute:  here and here

The Council on Foreign Relations

New American Economy

Susan Martin, former Executive Director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform

Various economists quoted in this Eduardo Porter piece in the NYTimes

 

Maine Legislature – End of 2017 Session Update

While the Legislature’s fight over the budget and the brief State Government shutdown captured the headlines, MeBIC followed several bills affecting Maine’s immigrants and their employers.  Here’s a brief recap.

  • LD 1492: An Act to Attract, Educate and Retain New Mainers to Strengthen the Workforce

SUMMARY:     This bill would increase funding for English as a Second Language classes offered by school districts’ adult education centers, in order to eliminate waiting lists for classes, and to expand the classes offered in communities experiencing an increase in immigrant residents.  It also would: provide funding for contextualized English classes combined with job training at worksites; fund expansion from Portland into Lewiston-Auburn of the New Mainers Resource Center, which helps professional level immigrants integrate; and would provide small planning grants to communities experiencing growth in their immigrant populations.

MeBIC’s POSITION:  SUPPORTED.  Several of MeBIC’s Board members were involved in crafting this bill. MeBIC lobbied for LD 1492 and testified in its favor, as did several of MeBIC’s Partner Organizations.

OUTCOME:   The bill emerged from Committee with strong bipartisan support. However, due to the contentious budget battle, the bill was carried over until 2018, to avoid falling victim to funding issues.

  • LD 1307: An Act To Ensure Fair Employment Opportunity for Maine Citizens and Legal Residents

 SUMMARY:     In its initial iteration, this bill would have required all Maine employers to enroll in the federal E-Verify computer system to confirm employees’ legal eligibility to work, but also would have required E-Verify’s use in an unlawful, discriminatory, fashion.  MeBIC pointed out this enormous problem to the committee’s legal analyst, who concurred. The original version was subsequently withdrawn and replaced with language requiring all public employers in the state and all of their contractors or subcontractors to use E-Verify.

MeBIC’s POSITION: OPPOSED.  MeBIC actively lobbied against LD 1307. E-Verify is time consuming and costly to implement, particularly for small businesses without dedicated HR staff or those with large seasonal increases in employees (despite the fact that enrollment and use of the web platform is free).  E-Verify also returns a worrisome percentage of erroneous “tentative non-confirmations” of legal employment eligibility.  Efforts to mandate use of E-Verify by all employers nationally have consistently failed in Congress due to its flaws.   E-Verify in its current form should not be mandated in Maine.

OUTCOME:   LD 1307 was defeated.

  • Biennial Budget: Retention of General Assistance Funds Availability for Immigrants Applying for Permanent Status in the U.S.

SUMMARY:     General Assistance (G.A.) provides safety net subsistence level support for those who have nowhere else to turn.  Since 2015, it has been available to noncitizens who are legally here and seeking permanent status in the U.S., such as asylum seekers, for a maximum of 24 months.  Asylum seekers cannot get authorization to work under federal law until their asylum applications have been in process with the U.S. government for at least 180 days, and they are ineligible for federal means-tested benefits.  G.A. helps asylum seekers, who are not sponsored by any agency, survive and remain in Maine while awaiting their work permits.  With Maine’s declining population, investing in supporting asylum seekers in the short term, so that they can be part of our workforce and our communities in the long term, is an investment in strengthening Maine’s economy.

MeBIC’s POSITION: Several individual businesses wanted to make the case at the State House that retaining limited G.A. eligibility for asylum seekers and others on the path to permanent immigration status is a smart investment in Maine’s economy.  MeBIC’s Director supported their efforts, and also provided talking points to several Republican and Democratic legislators who requested them, making the economic case for G.A.

OUTCOME:   G.A. eligibility for immigrants was retained in the approved biennium budget.