Congress Reaches Deal on 2016 Omnibus Bill; Bill Contains Reforms to Visa Waiver Program, Extension of Four Popular Immigration Programs

December 18th, 2015

On December 15, Congress reached a deal on the FY2016 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which funds the federal government through September 30, 2016. Congress is expected to vote on the bill later this week. The bill contains significant changes to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that are contained in HR 158, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, passed by the House of Representatives earlier in the month in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. The Omnibus Spending Bill also extends the EB-5, Conrad 30, Special Immigrant Religious Workers, and E-Verify programs through the end of FY2016, however, without any reforms. It does not, however, include proposals to end the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

The Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act, now part of the 2016 Omnibus Bill, revokes VWP travel privileges for all citizens of VWP countries who are dual nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan. This revocation of VWP privileges would apply to all nationals of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan even if they have never resided in or traveled to any of these four countries. Because these countries confer citizenship through naturalization, marriage, or descent, many individuals will be barred from using the program, even if they have never been to Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan. Some examples include:

  • Dual-national French citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to U.S. for business conferences and meetings;
  • Dual-national German citizen (born to Iranian father) traveling to U.S. on vacation;
  • Dual-national British citizen (born to Syrian father) traveling to the U.S. to take care of grandchild.

VWP travel privileges are also terminated for all who have been present in Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan at any time on or after March 1, 2011. There is a very narrow exception for certain military personnel and government officials. All other travelers would automatically lose their VWP privileges. Affected travelers would include scholars, refugee caseworkers, humanitarian aid workers, human rights investigators, and others.

New passport requirements are also incorporated into the bill. Starting April 1, 2016, VWP travelers will be required to use electronic passports that are machine-readable and fraud resistant. The program country will also be required to validate these passports.

Comment » | Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Visa waiver program

More Delays for Executive Action on Immigration Reform

December 16th, 2015

On Nov. 20, 2014, President Obama announced a series of executive actions that would affect undocumented immigrants in the United States. The new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability program and the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program garnered the most attention.

DACA aims to protect children who entered the U.S. before the age of 16 and who have lived in the country continuously since at least Jan. 1, 2010. Likewise, DAPA protects the parents of children who are citizens or lawful permanent residents. These programs are not intended as fast tracks to citizenship, though; qualified individuals must reapply every three years.

It’s been a year since President Obama’s announcement, and it seems there has not been much progress in moving forward with these plans.

Shortly after Obama’s announcement, several states took legal action to counteract these measures. A Texas federal judge blocked the measures, arguing that since some details were not published in the Federal Register, there was no allowance for public comments. Meanwhile, similar actions taken by other states and lower courts, similar to that of Texas, prompted the Obama Administration to appeal to the Supreme Court in November 2015.

As a result, many of the related programs haven’t been enacted or expanded, which may raise the possibility of deportation for many.

Since Obama’s initial announcement, the conversation regarding undocumented immigration has become more hostile among certain pockets of the population. As presidential hopeful Donald Trump gains support with his anti-immigrant language, many pro-reform activists now stress the urgency of voter registration and participation.

Meanwhile, Supreme Court review could be delayed until after President Obama leaves the White House. To keep reform moving in the meantime, immigration supporters and activists are working to gather support and register voters, encouraging them to vote in the upcoming primary elections., Activists are relying on a heavy turnout of immigrant voters in both the primaries and the general election to elect pro-reform candidates

Whether these actions take effect while President Obama is in office or after his presidency, activists and supporters will keep pushing for reform on all levels. Even so, we know that comprehensive immigration reform would ultimately resolve the shortcomings posed by smaller reforms like DAPA and DACA. Given the current political environment, the earliest that could happen is 2017 after the Presidential election.

Comment » | Immigration reform

Ryan’s Reform Ruling

November 23rd, 2015

On Nov. 1, newly elected House Speaker Paul Ryan ruled out overhauling U.S. immigration policies while President Obama is still in office. Ryan claimed that the president cannot be trusted on this issue, as he has bypassed Congress with an executive order shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. This executive order includes the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs. These programs would allow eligible undocumented immigrants to receive permits to temporarily stay in the U.S.

Another program effective in the summer of 2015 – called the Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP — prioritizes some groups of undocumented immigrants for deportation. Convicted felons would be deported as a first priority, followed by those with serious misdemeanors and/or unlawful entry or re-entry. Finally, those with a removal order issued after Jan. 1, 2014 would make up the third, or lowest, priority. This revises Obama’s immigration policy proposed in November 2014.

Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S., about 2 million are now categorized into one of these priority groups. The other 9.6 million immigrants are not currently seen as targets for immigration enforcement, which may improve their relationships with local law enforcement officers who are now less inclined to target them for deportation.

Many Sanctuary Cities rely on this lack of deportation to enable cooperation between undocumented immigrants and local law enforcement.

Lacking comprehensive immigration reform, many U.S. states are starting to implement their own state-based reforms – and they’re beginning to see positive results, according to Latin Post . States are experimenting with ways to bring these immigrants into the economy, aiming to benefit not only the immigrants themselves but also the state economies.

In terms of state-level reform, 12 states have allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, trying to improve road safety while generating revenue from permit fees. New Jersey is discussing such a program, and projects netting between $5.2 million and $9.5 million in the first three years.

These state reforms demonstrate that making strides to incorporate undocumented immigrants can benefit the economy as a whole. Whether that means expanding driver’s licenses or ensuring immigrants are paid the minimum wage, states are seeing success with these programs. Politicians like Paul Ryan must take these successes into account when discussing the need for comprehensive immigration reform, as doing so can benefit local, state and national economies — and constituents. Pandering to the anti-immigrant restrictionists is not a policy solution. It is cowardice.

Comment » | Immigration reform

The War on Sanctuary Cities

November 3rd, 2015

On Oct. 20, the Senate voted to block a bill that would remove protections from illegal immigrants in cities where local police do not actively enforce immigration laws.

Senator David Vitter (R-LA) penned the “Stop Sanctuary Policies and Protect Americans Act” (S. 2146), gaining support varied support. The bill aims to remove millions of dollars in funding from sanctuary cities for not complying with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests. Sanctuary cities generally restrict local law enforcement from complying with federal immigration laws.

The term “sanctuary city” came about in the 1980s when thousands of Central American refugees came to the U.S. to escape civil wars in their respective home countries, and were denied asylum upon their arrival. Several different religious institutions came together in the Sanctuary Movement to help protect refugees from deportation.

Some of the funding in question directly impacts programs designed to strengthen communities, such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). While sanctuary cities do not technically shield individuals from immigration authorities, they do improve community safety by empowering illegal immigrants to work with police without fear of deportation.

A number of Republicans, including presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, advocated for passing S. 2146, arguing that undocumented immigrants pose a safety risk for American citizens and communities.

Our country desperately needs comprehensive immigration reform that goes beyond partial fixes like S. 2146. While enough senators disagree with the bill to block it, they continue to ignore the underlying issue.

We have learned about the positive impact that H1-B visa holders bring to the U.S. economy, and reports show that these sanctuary cities are safer than believed by supporters of the bill. The only way to fully address the issues is through a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform.

Comment » | Immigration reform

Visa Bulletin Fiasco

October 15th, 2015

Over the past few weeks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) keeps receiving flower deliveries at its offices. Each delivery bears a note reading, “Dear Honorable Jeh Johnson, DHS Visa Bulletin reversal has caused irreparable harm to our families. We ask you to not inflict injustice on us (legal immigrants) for no fault of ours. Please fix October Visa Bulletin. We wish you the very best.”

Many immigrants are sending the flowers to protest the October Visa Bulletin posted to the Department of State’s (DOS) website on Sept. 25. The bulletin contradicts an earlier Sept. 9 post stating that immigrants who had been waiting to file for the last step of the green card process — which allows for changing jobs and traveling outside the country — would be able to do so beginning in October.

For the thousands of immigrants waiting to get to this step of the process, the initial news was welcomed. Many of these immigrants waiting hold H-1B visas, the most common for highly skilled immigrant workers.

Just 16 days after the initial visa bulletin was posted, the DOS released a new bulletin stating that the prior bulletin contained an error, and the thousands of immigrants waiting were no longer eligible to file. To the many immigrants who have invested thousands of dollars in preparing their applications, the reversal was a giant blow. Now, they fall back into the green card backlog, which can equate to more waiting.

For the immigrants that are currently living here with H-1B visas, this was especially troublesome. These workers are typically highly skilled and work in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). The very concept of hiring these workers can cause a rift among Americans, but research has shown that these workers actually add more opportunities for native-born Americans. With that in mind, giving H-1B visa holders the opportunity to file for the last step of the green card process could open more doors for these workers, and by extension many Americans.

According to CNN.com, a class-action lawsuit has been filed against the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Secretary of State John Kerry. While the court denied the plaintiff’s request for a temporary restraining order, the lawsuit is proceeding.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has called for Secretary Kerry, Secretary Johnson and Director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House Cecilia Muñoz to reconsider their decision and restore the original Sept. 9 bulletin, citing the hardships these affected immigrants have faced and stressing that the revised process will create additional struggles.

Comment » | Immigration Policy Center

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