ILW.COM - the immigration portal Immigration Daily

Home Page

Advanced search

Immigration Daily


Processing times

Immigration forms

Discussion board



Twitter feed

Immigrant Nation


CLE Workshops

Immigration books

Advertise on ILW

VIP Network


Chinese Immig. Daily


Connect to us

Make us Homepage



The leading
immigration law
publisher - over
50000 pages of free

Immigration LLC.

< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

Democracy, The Congress, And Immigration Law
by Andres C. Benach of the law offices of Cyrus D. Mehta

Each year, thousands of non-citizens take an exam in basic U.S history and civics to demonstrate their eligibility and suitability for American citizenship. By demonstrating this basic and fundamental knowledge, they express a commitment to our democratic values, our history, and our republican system of government. For example, an individual may be required to know that a legislator introduces a bill into Congress, where it gets debated, voted on, and passed or rejected based upon it merits and the will of the majority of legislature.

Such knowledge may be sufficient for the citizenship test, but it would not assist a new citizen in divining the process that immigration legislation takes in the House of Representatives to become law. In fact, this process is not about open debate and the triumph of the sound policy-making over flawed. Rather, it is about the power of one member of Congress to leave his imprint on the entire body of immigration law against the wishes of the American public, the Congress, the President, and the business community.

I am talking, of course, about the inordinate power of Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the Immigration Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. Through his power as Chairman, Rep. Smith has caused dozens of worthy proposals to die in his Subcommittee without any action while advancing his pet causes and agenda, often against the wishes and to the detriment of the American public. Rep. Smith has not hesitated to use his Subcommittee as a forum for his own views and the views of the most strident anti-immigrant voices. He has done so for several years now, emboldened by the 1996 passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. These two acts have had disastrous consequences for the lives of thousands of immigrants and their families. They have turned notions of due process upside down and have stripped the country's immigration judges of discretion in deportation cases, even of long-time permanent residents.

Alas, the tenor of public opinion has come a long way since 1996. The Contract with America is hardly mentioned these days, except when someone is reflecting on the lesson of a new majority overestimating its mandate. Newt Gingrich has come and gone and the anger that fueled the 1994 national elections has faded into a sense of contentment buoyed by the strong economy. This contentment has created a far more hospitable climate for immigrants based upon a growing realization of their essential role in our national economy and fabric. This new climate is evidenced by the strong support for relaxing our immigration laws to allow for more hard-working and law-abiding individuals and families to participate in the civic life of this country.

Long-time anti-immigrant feelings have been rejected by the nation's largest labor unions. Large new economy companies are stressing the need for highly skilled workers from abroad to fuel our economic growth. Presidential candidates are now reaching out to large immigrant populations with signs and advertisements in Spanish in certain areas. One of the biggest supporters of the 1996 laws, Rep. Bill McCollum has stated that the 1996 laws went too far. The trend towards a more inclusive attitude towards immigrants is not limited to the US, as Europe has moved to distance itself from the xenophobic and anti-immigrant views of Austria's Jorg Haider, a politician who would feel right at home in Smith's Subcommittee.

These developments match a growing awareness of and respect for immigrant populations in major cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Yet, at least one highly influential member of Congress still clings to the anti-immigrant dogma that fueled politics in 1994. More disturbing is that the leaders of his party have never criticized his approach or urged him to take up a more diverse array of legislation. House leaders such as Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Armey seem more concerned with alienating the vociferous anti-immigrant wing of their party than in passing meaningful legislation to redress many pressing immigration issues. Gov. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican nominee and leader of the Republican Party, has not ever asked his fellow Texan, Rep. Smith, to bring some more democracy to his subcommittee.

The most glaring example of Rep. Smith's disdain for the American public and his tireless pursuit of his unpopular agenda is his actions concerning the H-1B visa program, which provides temporary visas for high-skill workers. A numerically limited visa, the demand for the H-1B exceeds its supply. As a result for much of the year US employers are unable to get workers that they need as no new visas are available. Only Congress can raise the quota on H-1B visas and two proposals have been introduced in the House to raise the cap. The first enjoys broad bi-partisan support from the Congress and the business community. The second draws little support and has been condemned by almost all affected parties and individuals. However, because the second bill is Rep. Smith's bill, H.R. 4227, he has given it hearings and pushed it through his subcommittee. Incidentally, he introduced the bill just one day before holding the vote, giving lawmakers little opportunity to review it. The second bill has been assigned to the subcommittee but remains waiting to be acted upon, despite 63 bi-partisan co-sponsors including Majority Leader Dick Armey. This is one galling example where the Chairman has snubbed his nose at the American public, the business community and his colleagues in the House so that he may advance his own agenda.

Also pending in the Subcommittee are many worthwhile bills which deserve to be debated and considered by the House of Representatives, which was created in the Constitution to be the more publicly accountable House of Congress. Here are a few:

  • HR 3272 IIRAIRA Reform, introduced by Rep. Filner (D-CA), would return due process and judicial discretion to certain removal proceedings.
  • HR 2125 Late Amnesty, introduced by Rep. Jackson-Lee (D-TX) would allow certain applicants for the 1986 amnesty to legalize their status.
  • HR 1485 IIRAIRA Reform, introduced by Reps. Frank (D-MA) and Frost (D-TX) to restore certain relief from deportation and eligibility for certain waivers for some long-time permanent residents.
  • HR 2722, NACARA Equity of Relief, introduced by Rep. Smith (R-NJ) would allow certain nationals of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti to take advantage of NACARA's adjustment provisions.
  • HR 1841, 245(i) Restoration, introduced by Rep. Gutierrez (D-IL) and Morella (R-MD) would restore 245(i) and allow eligible people to adjust in the United States rather than leaving work and family behind while they travel abroad.

This is a small sample of the bills that Rep. Smith has held up from consideration in his Subcommittee because of his personal opposition to them. They are bills that should be addressed by the Congress as the bills were introduced to address some very serious issues in immigration law. They must be considered by the Congress.

Chairman Smith has run this Subcommittee like his own personal fiefdom. He has stifled debate, thwarted innovation, and maintained an unfair and unforgiving immigration status quo. Congress has made several attempts to remedy these problems but has encountered a brick wall of opposition in Rep. Smith. As his party seeks to shed it anti-immigrant image so well developed by Pete Wilson, its leaders should take a long hard look at the actions of Chairman Smith as he impedes reasonable, bi-partisan legislation to advance his personal restrictionist agenda. It is time that Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader Armey and Gov. Bush be called to account for their leadership of their party and to declare whether the Chairman's views on democracy and immigration are the views of the party.

Cyrus D. Mehta, a graduate of Cambridge University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City.He is the trustee of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the 1997 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award.He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities and may be contacted at 212-686-1581 or

The above article has been written by Andres C. Benach, a graduate of the George Washington Law School, and an associate attorney in the Law Offices of Cyrus Mehta. He previously worked on immigration issues in the Offices of the Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice