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Past, present and future: a rundown of immigration law

Tuesday, April 4, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:12 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Immigration has become a top issue in Washington and across the country: President Bush has made a guest worker program a top priority; the Senate continues to debate changes in immigration law; the House has approved a strict bill; and massive protests in cities around the country have criticized the House bill as too harsh.

Q What’s the immigration law now?

A Of particular interest in the present debate are visas given to temporary low-skilled workers. As the law exists today, there are two main programs for importing these workers: H-2A visas allow for agricultural workers; H-2B visas allow for nonagricultural workers. Employers who want to recruit these workers must first gain Labor Department certification that there are insufficient U.S. workers for the jobs and that the employment of immigrants would not harm wages for domestic workers.

Current law also sets penalties for certain violations. Illegally entering the country, helping someone enter the country illegally, being found in the country without documentation after being deported and displaying a pattern of employing illegal workers can all carry possible prison time. Being in the country without valid documentation, such as overstaying a visa, is currently a civil violation, which could bring deportation and a fine. Employing an undocumented immigrant can also bring a civil penalty.

Q Why do people want to change the law?

A Illegal immigration has increased dramatically. Between 11 million and 12 million illegal immigrants are currently in the country, according to the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center. The center said that 4.4 million of those have arrived since 2000. About two-thirds of illegal immigrants have been in the country less than 10 years, the center says. All together, one out of every 20 workers in the United States is undocumented. About 6.2 million illegal immigrants — or about 56 percent of the total number — came from Mexico.

Q What about earlier changes to the law?

A 1986 overhaul offered amnesty to illegal immigrants who had been in the country for the previous five years, and it increased sanctions on employers who knowingly employed workers who entered the country illegally. However, the number of illegal immigrants continued to grow. Eventually, enforcement of employer sanctions slackened.

Changes in 1996 focused on enhancing border security, streamlining deportation procedures and decreasing social benefits to immigrants who entered illegally. Experts say the primary effect was to encourage illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. once they arrived. As a result, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States continued to grow.

Q What are the current proposals?

A Three major proposals are before Congress:

  • A bill passed last December by the House would establish mandatory sentences for bringing illegal immigrants into the country, make illegal presence in the country a felony rather than a civil violation, build a two-layer fence along 700 miles of the Mexican border and make it a felony to offer assistance, including humanitarian assistance, to illegal immigrants.
  • Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has proposed a bill to increase civil and criminal penalties for hiring an illegal worker and more than double the number of employment-based green cards. It would make undocumented presence in the country a misdemeanor.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee has agreed on a bill that would allow illegal immigrants in the country before 2004 to continue working legally for six years if they pay a fine and clear a criminal background check.

    Foreign workers could apply for a three-year “guest worker” visa, which would be renewable for a second three-year period. After four years, they could apply for legal permanent resident status if they passed a background check, learned English and American civics and demonstrated their work history. Five years after that, they could apply for citizenship.

    The proposal would also add Border Patrol agents and authorize a “virtual wall” of unmanned vehicles, cameras and sensors along the Mexican border.

Q Where do mid-Missouri’s congressmen stand?

A Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Columbia, voted for the House bill in December.

“Our nation’s immigration policy cannot reward those who break our laws at the expense of those who play by the rules. Unfortunately, that is the way things are today,” he said in a statement. “The ease with which illegal aliens can currently enter the country undermines our rules governing legal immigration.”

Republican Sen. Jim Talent expressed wariness of any program that could provide amnesty to illegal immigrants.

“We need to protect America’s security, and that means securing America’s borders,” he said in a statement. “Border security is a national security issue, rather than an immigration issue. ... I will be examining the various proposals with a view toward supporting a comprehensive border security plan that does not include anything in the nature of an amnesty.”

Republican Sen. Kit Bond also stressed security but said immigrants are important to the U.S. economy.

“Our first priority must be securing our borders,” he said in a statement. “That means more Border Patrol agents and heightened border surveillance. We also need to recognize that many immigrants perform hard-to-fill jobs and develop a plan to deal with that reality.”

In comments to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bond questioned the idea of making undocumented presence in the country a felony.

“As a practical problem, you can’t treat 11 million people as felons,” he said. “We have to give them some way to pay their dues.”

Q What’s the next step in this process?

A Debate in the Senate is expected to continue throughout the week. If the Senate is able to pass a bill, negotiators from the two chambers would have to agree on a compromise version. Some in the House have said they would oppose any provisions authorizing guest workers or offering citizenship to those who first entered the country illegally.

Sources: Associated Press; The Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; St. Louis Post-Dispatch; 8 U.S.C. 1321-1330; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; “The Impact of Immigration on the Unites States Economy,” by Augustine J. Kposowa; “The New Americans,” by the National Research Council; Congressional Research Service; Huyen Pham, MU associate professor of law.

Missourian correspondent Meredith MacKenzie contributed to this report from Washington.


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