Issues / Legislation » Legislative Weekly Reports

Week Ending April 19, 2013

Senate Gang of 8 Introduces Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill

This week, the so-called Gang of 8 senators who have been meeting for months to write a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill introduced The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744). The bill is clearly a compromise reflecting the disparate views of the senators involved.  The core of the bill is a roadmap to full citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the shadows.  Most could apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status that would give legal status and authorization to work and travel.  The immigrant would have had to been present in the U.S. since December 31, 2011; submit to a background check; pay another $500 fine and processing fees; and not have been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors. An immigrant could apply on behalf of his or her spouse and children.  The RPI status would have to be renewed in six years and would require regular employment  or proof of an income of at least 100% of the poverty line and payment of a $500 fine and fees.  After 10 years, the immigrant could apply for Legal Permanent Resident status (green card). The requirements include payments of a $1,000 fine and fees; proof of employment or an income of at least 125% of the poverty level; and a course of English.  Then, after a total of 13 years, the immigrant can become a citizen.  DREAMers – those young people brought to the U.S. as children – would be able to get a green card in five years, as would certain agricultural workers.  

Contrary to many reports, this bill requires no border security trigger to begin the legalization process.  Rather, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security must have a plan in place to reach 90% effectiveness in preventing illegal border crossings.  If this goal is not reached in five years, the bill requires the establishment of a Southern Border Security Commission.  The border enforcement provisions also include the use of drones, completion of a border fence, and hiring thousands more Border Control and Customs agents.

The bill contains most of the provisions agreed to by the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a new W-visa program for low-skilled, non-seasonal, nonagricultural foreign workers.  There is a yearly cap on the number of visas that can be issued and employers must pay visa holders the higher of the actual or prevailing wage.  An employer is not eligible for a W-visa worker if there were any layoffs 90 days before or after employing a W-visa holder.  Also, the employer must post positions for 30 days on the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) job listings web site and with the state workforce agency. No W-visas will be issued if the unemployment rate in the area is above 8½ percent.  And, visa holders can self-petition for green cards rather than relying on their employers.

The bill establishes a bureau that will use a data-driven system to determine if and when labor shortages exist.  Its recommendations will be an important factor in calculating the annual cap and in what industries W-visa holders may be employed.  The intention is to prevent flooding the U.S. labor market, which would result in increased levels of unemployment and wage depression for all workers.

The H-1B guest worker program for jobs requiring a college degree or in the technology field is made both better and worse than the current programs. The annual cap on the number of H-1B workers who can be hired is increased from 65,000 to 110,000, and can eventually go up as high as 180,000.  This will limit employment opportunities for U.S. workers in the technology and other fields and lower wages. The bill moderately improves the wage requirements from the current four salary tiers, and there is a requirement that jobs be posted on the DOL website for at least 30 days before petitioning for H-1B workers.  Microsoft, Facebook and dozens of other technology companies have been relentlessly lobbying to have unfettered access to temporary foreign workers who they can pay less than U.S. workers and send them back home when they don’t want or need them anymore.  They have been very successful.

The bill cuts back on family-based visas by eliminating the ability to petition for a sibling after 18 months.  Besides spouses and minor children, all other family members will be part of a new, merit-based visa point system.  Under this system, there will be a cap on adult children admitted.  The Senate bill does not include President Obama’s recommendation that LGBT families be treated equitably in receiving family-based visas.

The bill eliminates the Diversity Visa program, which has been the primary path for nationals from African countries to legally immigrate to the U.S. Instead, Africans would have to attempt legal immigration through the new point system. 

The E-Verify electronic system for checking employees’ work authorization status would be made mandatory and phased-in over five years.  The current voluntary system is riddled with database errors which should be rectified before all employers are mandated to use it.  Employees would be entitled to back pay if they are mistakenly identified as not having work authorization.

Immigrants in RPI status will not be eligible for any means-tested public benefits.  This includes Medicaid, SNAP (formerly food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and subsidies on the health exchanges.  They can, however, use the exchanges to purchase health coverage if they pay the full cost.  And the same five-year bar to receiving these benefits for current green card holders would apply to this population as well.

President Saunders said in a press statement: “The U.S. immigration system is broken.  The legislation introduced today by a group of bipartisan senators takes a giant step toward fixing the system in a way that reflects America’s fundamental values. While we will work to improve the bill during the legislative process, it moves us in the right direction. We salute President Obama’s leadership and the bipartisan group of senators who have paved the way for comprehensive immigration reform.” 

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing next week on S. 744, and on May 9 expects to begin sessions where amendments can be considered.  It is possible that floor debate on the bill could start as early as the beginning of June, but that may be an optimistic timeline. No comprehensive immigration reform bill has been introduced in the House.

On May 1, the labor movement is leading dozens of rallies across the country calling on Congress to pass a strong, comprehensive immigration reform bill without delay.  President Saunders will be a featured speaker at a rally in Las Vegas, where he will speak and share the stage with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).  If you are not yet aware of public events planned for May 1 near you, please contact your state federation of labor or central labor council. 

House Subcommittee Hears Testimony on Social Security Benefit Cut

The House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security held a hearing this week on the so-called chained CPI which would reduce the annual cost-of-living-adjustment to seniors’ Social Security income. Witnesses included government experts who measure government statistics as well as individuals in favor and opposed to applying the chained CPI to Social Security. Subcommittee Democrats unanimously lined up against a switch to the chained CPI, arguing that it would harm seniors and that it is not a more accurate measure of seniors’ expenses.  They also pointed out that Social Security has no role in the federal deficit and therefore measures to address Social Security’s long term solvency should be considered separately from deficit reduction negotiations.  Subcommittee GOP leaders, in contrast, generally supported the proposal.   

Senator Rockefeller Introduces Medicare Drug Savings Act of 2013

Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), along with 18 other senators, introduced the Medicare Drug Savings Act of 2013 (S. 740). The legislation, which AFSCME supports, would end a sweetheart deal for brand-name drug manufacturers that allows them to charge Medicare higher prices for prescription drugs for some seniors and people with disabilities. The bill would save taxpayers and Medicare $141.2 billion over 10 years by reinstating a requirement that drug companies provide rebates to the federal government on drugs used by Medicare beneficiaries who are also eligible for Medicaid.  These rebates were required before Medicare Part D was created in 2006. This is a proven policy to reduce waste in Medicare and to avoid reckless proposals to cut Medicare benefits.   

Senator Boxer Introduces Nurse Staffing Bill

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced the National Nursing Shortage Reform and Patient Advocacy Act (S. 739), which would improve the delivery of safe and quality health care by requiring hospitals to meet minimum nurse-to-patient staffing levels.  Safe nurse staffing standards also help address the nursing shortage by correcting harmful working conditions that drive nurses away from the bedside.  Research shows that unsafe nurse staffing levels jeopardize quality patient care and puts patients at greater risk of medical errors, hospital-acquired infections and death.  The bill also protects the rights of nurses to speak out for their patients and themselves without fear of discrimination or retaliation. A similar bill is expected to be introduced shortly by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). 

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