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U.S. Senate tackles immigration reform compromise

Members of First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville, Md., demonstrate on the National Mall in Washington during an April 2006 rally for immigrant rights. The U.S. Senate began on June 4 debating a compromise immigration reform bill that could affect 12 million undocumented workers. A UMNS file photo by Jay Mallin.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

June 4, 2007



A comprehensive immigration reform bill in the U.S. Congress has sparked 108 amendments with a variety of outcomes that could dramatically affect the fate of at least 12 million undocumented workers in the United States.

The Senate resumed debate on the bill June 4 and was expected to vote on the matter by June 12. The debate will focus on a bipartisan compromise agreement labeled a "grand bargain" during a May 17 announcement by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

The proposal (S. 1348) would legalize millions of unlawful immigrants, tighten border security and mandate that employers verify they are hiring legal workers. Conservative opponents say the compromise would reward between 12-20 million illegal aliens with amnesty and encourage legal immigration. Supporters say the bill, while not perfect, is a good starting point toward fixing an immigration policy that has long been broken.

The United Methodist Board of Church and Society is among faith-based groups supporting the agreement as a starting framework with some reservations about parts of the bill that apply to families.

The denomination's social advocacy agency is urging United Methodists to support three family-based amendments in particular: the Mendendez-Hagel amendment delaying the family backlog cutoff date; the Clinton-Hagel amendment to designate minor children and spouses as immediate relatives of lawful permanent residents; and the Dodd-Hatch amendment, regarding foreign-born parents of U.S. citizens.

Describing family unity as "a significant issue of faith," the United Methodist agency has lobbied for an immigration system that preserves and encourages the family life of those affected, according to Bill Mefford, an executive with the Board of Church and Society.

"In Scripture, it is the family that is created by God to provide the economic and practical necessities, the religious instruction, the emotional stability and care, and the primary means of socialization for the individual," Mefford wrote in an e-mail action alert about the bill. "Policies which devalue families ultimately devalue individuals and entire societies."

Menendez-Hagel amendment


Bill Mefford reports on pending legislation during a February United Methodist conference on immigration issues. A UMNS file photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

As it stands, the compromise would clear the backlog under the existing family and employer-based system, but only for those who submitted their applications before May 1, 2004.

"As a result, an estimated 833,000 people who have played by the rules and applied after that date will not be cleared as part of the family backlog and will lose their chance to immigrate under current rules," Mefford said.

The Menendez-Hagel amendment would extend the application cutoff date to Jan. 1, 2007 – the same cutoff date set to legalize undocumented immigrants.

"It would also add 110,000 green cards a year to ensure that we don't start creating a new backlog or cause the eight-year deadline for clearing the family backlog to slip by a few years," Mefford said.

Clinton-Hagel amendment

Current immigration law limits the number of green cards available to spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents to 87,900 per year. For these spouses and minor children, quota backlogs are approximately four years and nine months long.

Critics say thousands of legal immigrant families have been devastated by "inequitable" policies that affect minor children and spouses dependent on the status of their U.S. sponsor.

The Clinton-Hagel amendment would re-categorize these spouses and children as "immediate relatives," thereby lifting the cap on the number of visas available to close family members and allowing permanent U.S. residents to reunite with their loved ones in a timely fashion.  

Dodd-Hatch amendment

The bill would set an annual cap for green cards for parents of U.S. citizens at 40,000 (less than half the current annual average number of green cards issued to these parents). It also would create a new parent visitor visa program that only allows parents to visit for 100 days per year and collective penalties that critics say are harsh.

The Dodd-Hatch amendment would increase the annual cap of green cards to 90,000, extend the duration of the parent visitor visa to 365 days to help families remain together for a longer period; and make penalties levied on individuals who overstay their S-visa applicable to that individual and not collectively applied to their fellow citizens.

"This amendment is essential to making sure that our permanent legal immigration system is fair to U.S. citizens and their parents, and facilitates family reunification," Mefford said.

Divisive issue

Discussion on the compromise has been wide-ranging, with many groups at opposite ends of the spectrum.

In a telephone conference call May 30, members of the Board of Church and Society joined representatives of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Church World Service, Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism, Jewish Council of Public Affairs and Mennonite Central Committee, urging callers to make their voices heard on the immigration proposal.

"With all the pending amendments, what we need to watch out for are things that change the compromise or chip away at it," said Krista Zimmerman, Mennonite Central Committee.

NumbersUSA Action, a nonprofit public policy organization led by United Methodist Roy Beck, called the bill an effort "to use federal immigration policies to force mass U.S. population growth and to depress wages of vulnerable workers."

"It is crucial for Senate offices to hear from you as people of faith that family is not only an effective means of economic growth for the United States, but also is a significant means of social assimilation as well as spiritual and emotional stability."
–Bill Mefford

On its Web site, the organization urges a "no" vote on the Clinton-Hagel amendment. "This amendment runs counter to the claims of the measure’s proponents by actually exacerbating the scourge of 'chain migration.' By itself, in fact, the 'grand compromise' would not end chain migration, as its backers have suggested, but make it worse, and making the problem worse still through adoption of this amendment is no solution," according to the Web site.

The group also opposes the Mendendez-Hagel amendment.

"The compromise bill already includes an increase of almost 600,000 green cards to reduce the so-called 'family unification' backlog, something NumbersUSA strongly opposes," the group says. "This amendment, offered by Sen. Menendez (who was one of the chief negotiators in bringing to the floor the 'grand compromise' before breaking away to seek an even more egregious open borders position), would only worsen the problem caused by 'chain migration.'"

United Methodist involvement

The United Methodist Book of Resolutions calls for the Board of Church and Society "to work for public policy that is hospitable to visitors to the United States in every step of entry and visit to the U.S. from visa application to the time while they are enroute to and are accepted entry into the United States."

The resolution also states that the United Methodist position "has been clear on the issue of immigration including those who, while working in the U.S. and making their contribution, do not have the needed documents for residence.

"The 2000 General Conference adopted a resolution which specifically charged The United Methodist Church to declare the 'Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Resolution Act' evil and unjust and to call the United States government to accountability and insist upon changes and possible abolition of the 1996 Immigration law, the continued existence of a unified Immigration and Naturalization Service, rather than a division into administrative and enforcement prosecutorial branches, and the development of an amnesty program for undocumented persons."

Family immigration has been the cornerstone for the U.S. immigration system for the past 40 years, according to Mefford.

"Family unity is a significant issue of faith and is vital to society," he said. "The legislation before the Senate will eliminate the family preference system and replace it with an untested merit-based system which devalues families and emphasizes high-skilled workers."

"It is crucial for Senate offices to hear from you as people of faith that family is not only an effective means of economic growth for the United States, but also is a significant means of social assimilation as well as spiritual and emotional stability," Mefford said.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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