Washington prepares for radical overhaul of immigration laws

‘Gang of Eight’ will determine the status of up to 11 million illegal immigrants

Ecuadorian immigrant Diego Cazar, now living in the US for 12 years, looks towards the Statue of Liberty while participating in a rally for immigration reform at the weekend. Photograph: John Moore Getty Images

Ecuadorian immigrant Diego Cazar, now living in the US for 12 years, looks towards the Statue of Liberty while participating in a rally for immigration reform at the weekend. Photograph: John Moore Getty Images


This week on Capitol Hill will be significant for plans to usher in the most radical changes to immigration law in a quarter of a century as a bipartisan legislative Bill is expected to be published.

The Bill from the so-called “Gang of Eight” Democratic and Republican senators is keenly awaited as the political response to its publication will signal whether a divided US Congress – or more specifically, congressional Republicans – are willing to pass comprehensive immigration legislation to legalise the status of 11 million illegals living in the US and to determine future immigration.

Reach a deal
The omens are not good. Last week one of the eight, Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida tipped as a future presidential candidate, said that while encouraged by a deal between unions and business groups on guest workers, it was “premature” to say that the group had reached a deal.

For Republicans, this is a thorny issue that the party knows must be grasped if it is to remain politically relevant on a national stage, even if individual party members remain steadfastly anti-immigration for their own electoral survival in states and congressional districts across the country.

Barack Obama’s winning of 71 per cent of the vote of Hispanics, the largest illegal immigrant population far outstripping the thousands of undocumented Irish, was instrumental in the president being returned to the White House.

It has left the Republicans in a soul-searching crisis. The president has pitched immigration reform as one of his main legislative objectives of his second term, but some Republicans are resisting change.

Bruce Morrison, a former Democratic congressman, is synonymous with visas given to thousands of Irish citizens under one of only two pieces of legislation to increase the number of legal immigrants.

Some 40,000 Morrison visas were issued each year to countries disadvantaged by 1965 legislation. Irish people received about 48,000 or 48 per cent of the visas.

Immigration reform
Morrison, a

lobbyist and immigration lawyer, believes that a comprehensive immigration reform Bill has “a better than 50:50 chance of passing but it is way short of a certainty.”

Where in 1986 and 1990 legislation was passed “closing the back door and fixing the front door”, this time around the objective is to comprehensively deal with outdated immigration laws.

“Now we are trying to work on both doors at the same time as well as the people inside,” he said. “That is challenging.”

Morrison sees the Irish having a strong political hand when it comes to securing new E3 work visas that will allow 10,500 Irish graduates work in the US as long as they find work.

He believes Republicans have to act. The party official and leaders in Congress have decided “to get this off their plate” as it is problem, he said.

Republicans have an electoral base that “want to hear really nasty stuff about immigration”, yet when they speak to those constituents it damages the party nationally, particularly among Hispanics.

Morrison says that that the political posturing in Congress over how to legalise millions of illegal immigrants and agree on “future flows” of immigrants is an attempt to find ways of changing laws so that Republicans won’t lose face among those core constituents.

‘Guaranteed citizenship’
“There is a kind of leadership push to get this done and they know that there is stuff that the Democrats are going to insist on that they are going to have to swallow and the process that is going on right now is to try to paint it an acceptable colour,” he said. “They are designing something that the Democrats can describe as a path to citizenship and the Republicans can define as no special path, so it ends up that people are eligible for citizenship but not guaranteed citizenship. It allows both sides to say that they got something.”

Whether Republicans choose to pass new laws or not, Democrats are in a win-win situation as they are pushing for the overhaul of the broken system. “The Republicans need this,” says Morrison. “The worst scenario for them is for this to fail and the Democrats to be able to credibly blame them . . . the 2014 and 2016 elections will be all about how Republicans refused to fix the immigration system and to treat these people humanely.”

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