Week Ending June 28, 2013
Senate Passes Historic Immigration Reform Bill
By a vote of 68 to 32, the U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” (S. 744) on June 27. All Senate Democrats voted in favor and were joined by 14 Republicans. AFSCME has been supporting this legislation from the beginning, first and foremost because it provides a path to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring Americans living in our country. This is in keeping with our American values of fully integrating immigrants – wherever they come from – into our society. It is fitting that the Senate has taken a huge step towards passing comprehensive immigration reform legislation just before the July 4 holiday, which celebrates all of our country’s best values.
The pathway to citizenship for legalizing most immigrants would take a total of 13 years; however, they would be free from the fear of deportation and would have the legal authority to work soon after the bill becomes law provided they undergo a background check and pay fines, fees and assessed back taxes. The DREAMers – those immigrants who were brought to this country as children – would have a five-year expedited path to citizenship, as would some agricultural workers.
The bill also retains a new employment visa program for lower-skilled workers, called W visas, which the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce negotiated. No foreign workers could be hired without a documented labor shortage; employers would have to pay visa workers the prevailing wage or the actual wage being paid, whichever is higher; U.S. workers would have the first shot at jobs; and workers would have protections against being laid off and replaced by a visa worker. But where there are labor shortages, workers from other countries would have the opportunity to come to the U.S. on a work visa giving them legal status with all worker protections. Other very positive features of the bill include clearing out a backlog of approved green card applications, and reuniting millions of families. Also, the bill has very good worker standards protecting undocumented immigrants against retaliation for union organizing or for whistleblowing.
As in all pieces of comprehensive legislation, we did not get all of the provisions for which we lobbied. For example, the visa program for higher skilled workers, known as H-1B, has few of the W visa program protections. It would allow employers to pay less than the prevailing wage and to pass over qualified U.S. workers for open positions and instead hire H-1B visa holders. We will work to improve protections in the H-1B program as the legislative process continues.
Border security is another area where we disagree with the final language in the bill. On the Senate floor, the Senate adopted an amendment co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and John Hoeven (R-ND), referred to as a “border surge,” which requires that an additional $30 to $40 billion be spent on doubling the number of border agents, on drones and on more border fencing. This is on top of the enormous amount of spending for border control that was already in the bill. While passage of this amendment garnered additional votes in favor of the bill, we believe these federal government funds could be better utilized elsewhere.
The process now moves to the House, which must pass an immigration reform bill for this effort to move forward. The situation there remains murky at best. No comprehensive bill has been introduced. Instead, the House Judiciary Committee has been writing and passing piecemeal bills. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) recently said he would not bring an immigration bill to the floor for a vote unless the majority of Republicans support it. Given the wide disparity of views in his party, including the tea-party wing that does not support comprehensive reform, the chances of a comprehensive bill passing in the House are slim at the moment. It is possible the House could pass one or more of its piecemeal bills and use them to work out a final bill with the Senate. Stay tuned.
Please call your Representative this week and urge him/her to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the shadows and who are working for unscrupulous employers in the underground economy.
Fixing our broken immigration system will benefit our communities and all workers. Call 1 (888) 930-0113 to be connected toll-free to your U.S. Representative. When you’re connected, tell your Representative that the time is now for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a fair path to citizenship.
Student Loan Rates Set to Double
The interest rate on subsidized Stafford student loans will double July 1 from 3.4% to 6.8%, increasing college costs for over 7 million students by $1,000 per student, per loan. With just three days left until the deadline, it is unlikely that Congress can come to an agreement that is better for student loan borrowers than if rates doubled to 6.8%. What is more likely is that a short-term fix could pass following the July 4 recess. Extending the current student loan rate, even for just one year, is the right thing to do to keep college within reach for low- and moderate-income students.
House and Senate Appropriations Committees Approve Transportation-HUD Spending Bill
With a strong bipartisan majority, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 22 to 8 to approve the Transportation-Housing annual spending bill for FY 2014. It provides slightly more overall funding than last year’s enacted level and thereby will bolster key state and local government services. For example, the bill slightly increases spending for the Public Housing Capital Fund and the Public Housing Operating Fund. Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said, “this bipartisan bill was written with input from Senators on both sides of the aisle, and I’m proud we came together on a responsible approach that makes critical investments in our communities during a time of tight budget constraints.”
In sharp contrast, the House Appropriations Committee voted 28 to 20 along party lines to approve the House version of this bill with significant overall funding cuts. Compared to last year, it reduces overall funding by 15%, which is 24% less than President Obama’s request. The lower overall funding levels result in cuts to AFSCME priorities. For example, it is 33% less than the Senate bill for the Public Housing Capital Fund, 8% less for the Public Housing Operating Fund, and almost half the funding for Community Development Block Grant funding to states and localities.
75th Anniversary of Fair Labor Standards Act
June 25 marked the 75th Anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which ensures “the most minimum standard of living necessary for the health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” Although the FLSA includes a number of basic wage and hour standards affecting employees in the private and public sectors, the national minimum wage may be its best known contribution to economic fairness. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on this anniversary calling attention to the urgent need to raise the minimum wage. At the White House, Vice President Biden also urged Congress to increase the minimum wage and called for home care workers to be provided with the wage and hour protections of this federal law.
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