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Immigration Issues in the 107th Congress
by Andrés Benach from the offices of Cyrus D. Mehta

Now comfortably into 2001, we can reflect on our successes in advocating for more humane treatment for immigrants in 2000. Last year was a watershed year for immigrant advocates with several legislative victories beginning to erode the sway of the anti-immigrant restrictionists who had dominated the political scene in the early and mid nineties. In 2000, a consensus that immigrants benefit American society and that laws ought to reflect this fact emerged. This sentiment was shared by a diverse array of interests and a coalition formed that notched several important legislative victories, such as the H-1B bill, the extension of §245(i), the introduction of V visas, the expansion of K visas, and the adjustment provisions for late amnesty applicants. Although we failed to secure a permanent extension of §245(i), an update in the registry date, NACARA parity and due process reform, our achievements marked the beginning of our ability to wrest policy-making control from the nativists.

Our successes and failures from last year inform and inspire our legislative goals for the 107th Congress in 2001. With a new Congress and a new President, we are in a moment of uncertainty over immigration as known actors such as Rep. Lamar Smith, President Clinton, and Senator Spencer Abraham receding from the immigration spotlight and new unknowns such as new House Immigration Subcommittee Chair George Gekas (R-PA), and likely Senate Subcommittee Chair Sam Brownback (R-KS) stepping into the spotlight. Of course, the biggest question mark is President Bush. Although the tone of his campaign seemed to be pro-immigrant, he was silent on a number of immigration issues such as §245(i) and NACARA parity. Finally, there is the question of Attorney general John Ashcroft and the yet unnamed INS commissioner. Although how these people approach immigration law will make a tremendous difference this year, there are many members of Congress and advocates committed to changing immigration law and their activities will generate debate over immigration this year.

In 2001, we are going to be concentrating on a number of old initiatives and some new ones. First, let's look at the old ones. The LIFE Act, which temporarily restored §245(i), created the V and K-2 visas, and dealt with late amnesty, was a last-minute compromise between immigrant advocates supporting the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act and the Republican leadership. The final compromise did not include a permanent extension of §245(i), NACARA parity and an update of the registry date. These are serious omissions and we will fight to get them passed in this Congress. In addition, due process reform to fix the excesses of the 1996 laws failed to pass Congress in 2000. The House managed to pass a small measure of due process reform in HR 5062, but the Senate failed to pass it. In 2001, we will be focusing again on fixing the 1996 laws to restore fairness and due process to immigration law.

New on the agenda are two major initiatives-INS reorganization and immigration benefits for essential workers. Although these issues have appeared before Congress many times before, there appears to be consensus that these issues have a good chance of moving forward in 2001. INS reorganization contemplates radically changing the structure of our immigration system to make it more humane and efficient. There are several reorganization plans that will be offered this year. Any reorganization plan that wants to address the main problems with our immigration system must: (1) be overseen by a high-ranking official with political clout, such as an Associate Attorney General; (2) maintain a strict and equal separation of adjudication and enforcement activities while preserving coordination between the two branches; and (3) be adequately funded, so that INS does not have to rely on user fees to meet budgetary requirements.

In addition to INS reorganization, essential worker legislation is high on the agenda. Essential workers are those workers, predominantly in the service industries, for whom the immigration act makes relatively little provision. While shortages of labor in the restaurant, agricultural, construction, domestic, and other service industries remains acute, immigration law does not have any provision to allow for legal immigration for the workers who fill these jobs. It is time for Congress to act to recognize the essential role these workers play in our national economy and provide mechanisms for them to remain in the U.S. legally. Essential worker legislation must provide both short-term options, allowing people to come and work temporarily, and a long-term option, giving workers who desire it a chance to apply for permanent residency.

These issues will be on the agenda this year. Over the next few weeks, we will provide in-depth analysis of the issues and legislation introduced addressing these matters. Like last year, we will ask you to become part of the debate and to contact your representatives to ask them to support fair and humane immigration law.


About The Author

Andrés Benach is an Associate in the Law Offices of Cyrus D. Mehta. He received his J.D. with honors from George Washington Law School in 1998 and his B.A. from Boston College. He is a member of AILA and a member of its New York Media Outreach Committee. As a law student, he worked at the Office of the Deputy Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice on immigration matters.

Cyrus Mehta, a graduate of Cambrdige University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City. He is Vice Chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's National Labor Department Liaison Committee, trustee of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award. He is also Chair of the Immigration and Nationality Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities, and may be contacted at 212-686-1581 or info@cyrusmehta.com. His website is www.cyrumsmehta.com



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