Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Representatives Lofgren and Jackson Lee are Main Contenders to Chair Immigration Subcommittee
Congressional Quarterly reported this week that the two major contenders to Chair the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims are Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). Jackson Lee, who is currently ranking member on the panel, is not commenting on her bid to become the next subcommittee chairwoman, but immigration lawyers who have worked with her are speaking up in her behalf. Rep. Zoe Lofgren has stated through her spokeswoman that she also might pursue the Immigration Subcommittee chairmanship. Lofgren is ranking member of the Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee, but is exploring whether to assume that chairmanship or pursue the Judiciary Subcommittee position instead. Regardless of the outcome, the Immigration Subcommittee will likely take a new direction on immigration reform as both Lofgren and Jackson Lee have been strong supporters of guest worker amnesty legislation. Lofgren or Jackson Lee will replace the outgoing Subcommittee chairman, Congressman John Hostettler (R-IN).

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Homeland Security Announces Only Partial Implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and State Department announced the publication of regulations that will partially implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is the Bush Administration's plan to carry out The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The Act requires DHS and the State Department to develop and implement a system for all travelers, including U.S. citizens, to present a passport or other documents that denote identity and citizenship when entering the United States from countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Currently, U.S. citizens are exempt from carrying passports when returning from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Non-U.S. citizens arriving from those countries may gain entry by showing only minimal identification. Under the new regulations announced last week citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda who enter the United States by air from the Western Hemisphere will have to present passports, with certain narrow exceptions.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was, according to the Intelligence Reform Act, also supposed to apply to citizens arriving in the U.S. by land and sea. DHS has announced that a "separate proposed rule addressing land and sea travel will be published at a later date." This delay was authorized two months ago, when Congress added a provision to the FY2007 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill approving the delay of the land/sea portion of the Initiative by 17 months, until June 2009. During this time, DHS will be working on fine-tuning an alternative to a passport, called a PASS card, that will be authorized for land and sea travel between the U.S. and Mexico and Canada. DHS has stated that while the deadline for land and sea travel has been extended, it is working to implement the new rules by the original deadline, January 2008.

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USCIS Announces Pilot Program For New Citizenship Test
Last week, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) announced plans to test launch a new citizenship test this winter. The test will continue to be an oral test, conducted in English, but the contents will change to focus more on the applicants' grasp of principles of American democracy, rather than on facts or trivia. USCIS officials hope to use the pilot program to work out any problems and refine the exam.

The pilot will be conducted in ten cities across the U.S.: Albany, NY; Boston, MA; Charleston, SC; Denver, CO; El Paso, TX; Kansas City, MO; Miami, FL; San Antonio, TX; Tucson, AZ; and Yakima, WA. To pass, applicants must correctly answer six out of ten questions asked. If they fail, they may take the old test, which typically has a high pass rate. The new test is currently scheduled to be given to all applicants for naturalization beginning in 2008.

Some immigrant advocacy groups have criticized the new test as the creation of another barrier to citizenship. Over 220 such groups recently sent a letter to the USCIS, arguing that the new citizenship test will set the bar too high for those with less education. USCIS officials and other observers say that focusing on fundamental principles and values is a way to gauge an applicant's "attachment" to the United States and will promote participation in government by newly naturalized citizens.

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Governors Ask Bush Administration to Follow Through on Commitment to Cover Incarceration Costs
Last week, the governors of ten states signed a letter urging the federal government to fully fund the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) in the administration's FY2008 proposed budget. SCAAP is a federal program through which the federal government grants money to the states to cover the incarceration costs of criminal aliens.

Increasing funding for SCAAP was one of the many enforcement provisions that stalled during the Congressional battle over the granting of amnesty to millions of illegal aliens. In their letter, the ten Governors state they are concerned that the President's prior budgets have failed to provide funding for SCAAP and request the Bush Administration fund the SCAAP program at $950 million for FY2008. The letter continues:

We are committed to continuing to work with your Administration and the Congress to protect our nation. However, until the federal government can achieve its goal of restoring safety and security throughout our border regions, every effort should be made to compensate the state and local governments who have stepped up to fill this gap by policing the regions and incarcerating criminal aliens at their own considerable expense.

The letter to President Bush was signed by Governors Schwarzenegger (CA), Napolitano (AZ), Richardson (NM), Vilsack (IA), Gregoire (WA), Bredesen (TN), Corzine (NJ), Kulongoski (OR), Henry (OK), Sebelius (KS), and Vila (Puerto Rico).

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