Michigan Senate Delegation Splits Vote on Immigration Bill

Yesterday, Michigan Senator Carl Levin voted in favor of the Senate’s immigration reform bill while Senator Debbie Stabenow voted against the bill. The bill, while being touted as a “compromise” by many, fails to offer any true opportunities for undocumented immigrants to be legal citizens.

Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, both of whom are Democrats, split on the immigration reform bill passed yesterday by the Senate. The immigration reform bill passed the Senate by a vote of 62 to 36 with Senator Levin joining those in support of the bill and Senator Stabenow voting against it. Senator Levin, in explaining his vote in support of the bill, called it a “product of bipartisan compromise” and described how the bill will “make our borders more secure while creating a workable temporary worker program that protects US jobs.” Last week, the Michigan Senators were united in support of extending a fence along the United State Mexico border and also both voted against a measure that would make English the country’s “national language.” Earlier this week, both Senators voted to authorize the use of the National Guard along the United States’ southern border.

However, while many Democrats have supported the bill, the bill not only will militarize the border through the deployment of the National Guard, hiring of additional border agents, and the extension of a fence running along the United States-Mexico border—many of the benefits of the bill touted by its supporters are likely to remain elusive for many undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The bill—according to the Senate and the bill’s supporters—will offer as many as eight million undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years the opportunity to earn “legal status” and “eventual citizenship” if they pay back taxes and $3,250 in fines and fees, pass background checks, and learn English. Three million people believed to have entered the country between two and five years ago would be required to go across the border and re-enter the United States legally as temporary workers, but would be given the opportunity to apply for green cards. The two million people that the Senate determined to have been in the country for less than two years would be required to leave immediately and would have to apply to enter the country legally. The bill also will allow 200,000 foreign workers per year to enter the country each year through temporary work visas.

It has been argued by some opponents of the bill that the so-called “path to citizenship” opened by the bill would only be available to fifty percent of the undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. Moreover, any immigrants who have used false Social Security numbers or false names to obtain employment at any time while in the United States would be excluded from the process of gaining citizenship. There is also a cut-off date of January 7, 2004, which means that anyone entering the country after that date is ineligible for anything the bill offers aside from immediate deportation if caught. The guest worker program, which has been touted by many as a means of controlling immigration and supplying a necessary supply of labor to the United States, essentially reinstitutes a system similar to the Bracero Program in the 1960s that was called by Department of Labor official Lee G. Williams a system of “legalized slavery” when it was finally terminated. The guest worker program would essentially tie workers to specific employers and would give workers few rights to change jobs or organize to improve their conditions, thus making them vulnerable to exploitation. Additionally, an amendment to the bill made by Democratic Senator Robert Bryd attached a provision that requires undocumented immigrants to pay towards border security in the form of a $500 dollar fee that will be required of undocumented immigrants attempting to gain citizenship through the methods outlined in the bill. This $500 fee would be in addition to those required elsewhere in the bill.

Critics have also argued that the bill diminishes due process for immigrants by making it easier for the government to detain and deport immigrants. The Senate bill has adjusted what constitutes an “aggravated felony” under immigration law and made it so that carrying fraudulent documents or shoplifting, to name some examples, are felonies that would result in immediate deportation regardless of when the crimes were committed. Courts would also be given less area to review the cases of immigrants with US Circuit Courts only being allowed to consider whether an immigration agency had reasonable grounds for its decision with the courts being unable to rule on the quality of the decision. Similarly, Border Patrol officers would have expanded powers to jail and deport immigrants without judicial review whom they suspected crossed the border illegally. Immigrants who committed crimes several years ago may be considered having committed an aggravated felony according to the Senate bill and penalties have been enacted for legal immigrants that do not notify the government when they move under a little known section of current immigration law that requires that the government be notified of changes of address.

The Senate bill, despite its numerous problems, is considerably less draconian than the House of Representatives’ HR 4437 that was passed less December. HR 4437 would consider undocumented immigrants to be felons and would make it a crime for priests, nuns, health care workers, and social workers to assist undocumented immigrants in the United States. While House and Senate bills are considerably different, they must now go to a conference committee that will attempt to reconcile the differences in the two bills in an effort to construct a bill that will pass in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The reconciliation process is expected to take much of the summer with many conservative Republicans opposing what it considers to be provisions for “amnesty” in the Senate bill.

Stabenow, Levin Support Extended Border Fence as Senate Debates Immigration Reform

Following President Bush’s address to the nation on Monday, debate on immigration form continued throughout the week in the Senate. The Senate voted in favor of measures that would build a 370 mile extension to fencing along the United States and Mexico border as well as a measure that would make English the official language of the United States. While voting against the English-only measure, Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin supported the border fence.

On Thursday, the United States Senate voted to approve 370 miles of additional fencing along the United States-Mexico border. The fence, according Senator Jeff Session of Alabama, will cost $3.2 million per mile for a total of more than $900 million. Sessions praised the construction of the fence stating that its construction will send “a signal that open-border days are over. … Good fences make good neighbors, fences don’t make bad neighbors” and that areas where fences are already in place have experienced reduced crime and economic growth. On Friday, the Bush administration said that it supported the Senate’s vote to build additional fencing. The House of Representatives immigration reform bill, HR 4437 calls for the construction of a 700-mile fence. Stabenow and Levin split on a vote on an amendment that would require immigrants to pay a supplemental application fee, with Levin voting against the measure and Stabenow supporting it.

Despite their support for an extended fence along the border, Senators and Stabenow voted against an amendment that would make English “the national language” of the United States. The amendment designated English as the “national” language instead of the “official” language in order to gain more support in the Senate, with the summary of the amendment reading “to declare English as the national language of the United States and to promote the patriotic integration of prospective US citizens” and would effectively ban federal government ordinances and services in any language other than English. The amendment says that “unless otherwise authorized or provided by law, no person has a right, entitlement or claim to have the government of the U.S. or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English.” The amendment also makes English the official language of record, reading that “If any forms are issued by the federal government in a language other that English … the English language version of the form is the sole authority for all legal purposes.” Proficiency requirements in English and United States History would also increase while no additional funding would be provided for English as a second language (ESL) classes.

The measure passed the Senate by a vote of 63 to 34, with the majority of Republican Senators voting for the measure and the majority of Democrats voting against it in a debate during which Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid described the amendment as “racist.” Despite the his rhetoric against making English the “national” language, many Democratic Senators—including Michigan Senators Stabenow and Levin—supported an amendment that declared English the “common and unifying language of the United States” in an effort to soften the “national” language measure proposed by Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Inhofe described the idea of making English the “official’ language of the United States as something that “people have talked about now for four decades that I know of, and I believe it should be popular” and went on to say that a “solid majority” of United States citizens support the measure. Currently 43 million Americans speak a language other than English in their homes and 336 languages are spoke throughout the United States due in large part to mass immigration in the twentieth century.