Monday, February 5, 2007

February 5, 2007
In this update:
Congressional Leaders Indicate Debate on Immigration Reform Will Resume
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Proposes Stiff Hike in Fees
Senate Judiciary Committee Scrutinizes US-VISIT Program
Senator Voinovich Moves to Relax Visa Waiver Program
Recent Floor Statements
Congressional Leaders Indicate Debate on Immigration Reform Will Resume
Last week, Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle again signaled that Congress is going to take up immigration reform in the near future. As reported in The Los Angeles Times, Senate Leaders Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) say they intend to make immigration reform one of the first ten bills they will take on during this legislative session. Speaking to The Washington Times, Senator Mel Martinez, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he is working with Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and others on new legislation that would create a guest worker program along the lines of what President Bush has proposed. "We're trying to see if something can be worked out," he said.
All of this comes on the heels of reports that Senators McCain (R-AZ) and Kennedy (D-MA) have been drafting their new guest worker amnesty proposal since mid-December—a proposal widely expected to be even broader than the Senate guest worker amnesty legislation passed last spring. According to The Los Angeles Times, this legislation will be introduced sometime this month. President Bush, too, appears to be anxious to see immigration reform take center stage. Less than two weeks ago he reiterated his call for Congress to pass a guest worker amnesty program in his State of the Union speech.
For advocates of "comprehensive" immigration reform, their greatest challenge in the current climate appears to be how to make amnesty palatable to members of both parties who have either never had to vote on immigration reform or have already promised their voters they would oppose amnesty. According to The Los Angeles Times, proponents of guest worker amnesty legislation have been pushing hard behind the scenes to persuade enforcement advocates to come on board. Representative Zoë Lofgren (D-CA), the new head of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, is a key member who supports "comprehensive" immigration reform and has been active in meeting members both formally and behind the scenes, trying to get members to back guest worker amnesty legislation.
Whether enough members of the House can be persuaded remains to be seen. Much will depend on how vocal constituents in these districts are on the issue. In surmising the situation, Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a guest worker amnesty supporter, remarked, "A lot of Members of Congress made campaign promises, so one of the challenges is to create a comprehensive bill that's consistent with the commitments people made during the campaign."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Proposes Stiff Hike in Fees
Last week, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) proposed to increase fees for various immigration-related services by an average of 66 percent. If passed, this will represent the largest overhaul of the agency's fee system since 1998. Some of the recommended fee increases include raising the application fee for U.S. citizenship from $330 to $595, and the fee for becoming a permanent legal resident from $325 to $905. Although some of these fees may be increased, the proposal will also eliminate other costs that the legal residency applicants often pay while waiting on their residency applications to become final.
In announcing the fee increase, USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez stated that the increases are essential to help the agency become "the immigration service of the 21st century." He explained that 99% of the agency's costs are paid for with application fees, and in the wake of September 11th, law enforcement agencies such as the FBI are charging USCIS more for background and fingerprint checks causing lost revenue. According to the Associated Press, USCIS said the fee increase would raise $2 billion over the next two years. The money is to be spent on improving immigration offices, technology, hiring and training, background checks, and speeding up application processing. USCIS estimates the new fees would reduce the average application processing times by 20 percent by the end of September 2009.
Some lawmakers reacted positively to the fee increases. Speaking to the Associated Press, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said, "It's right for the people who benefit to pay the cost of that benefit - not taxpayers." Conversely, amnesty supporters voiced their opposition to the fee increase, charging that the increase is meant to punish immigrants. "We are alarmed by the skyrocketing fees which will prevent deserving immigrants from taking the necessary steps to become citizens," said Christina DeConcini, Policy Director of the National Immigration Forum. Several members of Congress, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Immigration Subcommittee Chair Ted Kennedy (D-MA), House Judiciary Chair John Conyers (D-MI), and Immigration Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoë Lofgren (D-CA) sent a letter to Director Gonzalez, stating that they planned to review the agency's analyses behind the proposed immigration fee increases.
If USCIS adopts the proposed fee increases, they could go into effect as early as June 2007.

Senate Judiciary Committee Scrutinizes US-VISIT Program
On Wednesday, January 31, 2007, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security convened a hearing to address the problems plaguing the US-VISIT program. Originally passed by Congress in 1996, US-VISIT, or the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology Program, is a system intended to verify the identities of foreign travelers entering and exiting the country. When foreign nationals apply in their home countries for visas to travel to the U.S., U.S. embassies and consulates take biometric information of the applicant, such as fingerprints. When the traveler arrives at a U.S. point of entry, this biometric information is verified. It similarly should be verified at a point of entry upon the traveler's departure.
During Wednesday's hearing, Senators focused on the fact that, despite various deadlines, DHS is still unable to monitor when visitors leave the United States via land ports of entry. That is, since January 2004, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has processed tens of millions of international travelers through US-VISIT upon entering the U.S., but has not yet developed a system to determine whether these individuals actually depart the U.S. In her statement, Subcommittee Chair Senator Feinstein charged: "The Department of Homeland Security has essentially declared that the EXIT program is dead as far as the land borders are concerned. This is a serious problem. There are over 425 million border crossings at U.S. borders every year. Yet, because we don't know who is leaving the country, we do not know who, of these 425 million, is overstaying a visa versus who is playing by the rules." Similarly, Senator Cornyn (R-TX) stressed the importance of US-VISIT tracking exits as well as entries, since about 45% of illegal immigrants in the United States come into the country legally but overstay their visas.
Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the US-VISIT Program blamed the inability to track land departures on the absence of viable technology and funding. In a joint statement, these officials said that implementing biometric confirmation at land ports of entry is significantly more complicated and costly than at air or sea ports of entry. They indicated that developing such a program could cost upwards of $3 billion and cause significant traffic congestion at the border.
As the hearing concluded it was still unclear if and when Homeland Security would produce a plan to Congress to address these concerns.

Senator Voinovich Moves to Relax Visa Waiver Program
On January 22, 2007, Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) introduced legislation that would implement President Bush's proposal to expand the Visa Waiver Program.
Passed by Congress in 1988, the Visa Waiver Program allows foreign visitors from 27 participating countries to enter the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. To be eligible for the Program, countries must meet security criteria and demonstrate that their visa-refusal rate is below three percent. The visa-refusal rate is the rate at which U.S. consular officers in a foreign country deny visas based on the perceived risk of the applicant overstaying his/her visa.
Senator Voinovich's bill, entitled the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Act, (S.342) will expand the program by creating a pilot program to allow five countries who are not currently participants to enroll in the visa waiver program if they meet certain conditions. First the country must be "close to" meeting the requirements of the current visa waiver program and have a plan to meet the requirements within three years. (The phrase "close to" is not further defined.) Second, the country must meet any Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requirements to ensure the security and integrity of travel documents. This includes issuing electronic passports with biometric information and promptly reporting lost, stolen or fraudulent passports to the U.S. Third, the country must have already been cooperative in U.S. counterterrorism initiatives and information sharing. Finally, the country must agree to continue cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism initiatives and information sharing.
Unlike current requirements, however, S.342 prohibits Homeland Security from barring entry to the visa waiver program due to visa refusal rates, unless the rate raises security concerns. Because the visa-refusal rate is the barring obstacle to participation by numerous countries, this change will allow more countries to participate. In a press release issued late last year, the Department of Homeland Security described the proposal as tightening security while seeking "flexibility on requirements that focus on the risk of illegal migration."
In a released statement, Senator Voinovich stated that his bill will promote U.S. national security interests and increase business ties and tourism, benefiting the economy and U.S. competitiveness. Critics, however, have denounced the Senator's plan as a step backward in our country's efforts to secure its borders. They noted that several terrorists - including shoe-bomber Richard Reid and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui - boarded planes to the United States with passports from visa-waiver countries. Some charged that expanding the visa waiver program is an attempt to serve big business—especially the travel and tourism industry.
Other experts agree with this criticism. Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general at the Homeland Security Department told USA Today last December that the expansion of the visa waiver program was "a step in the wrong direction." He added, "We ought to be ending the visa-waiver program, not expanding it. There's a reason why terrorists are keen to obtain passports from visa-waiver countries: they don't have to undergo extensive security checks." The Government Accountability Office, in a report released in September 2006, found that "stolen passports from visa waiver countries are prized travel documents among terrorists, criminals and immigration-law violators."

Recent Floor Statements
Rep. Ted Poe(R-TX) commented on Lone Star Voice: Border Agent's Wife (January 31, 2007)
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords(D-AZ) commented on We Need A Comprehensive Immigration Reform Package (January 31, 2007)
Rep. Virgil Goode(R-VA) commented on Social Security Totalization Agreement With Mexico (January 31, 2007)
Rep. Walter Jones(R-NC) commented on Two U.S. Border Patrol Agents In Federal Prison (January 30, 2007)
Rep. Ted Poe(R-TX) commented on The Truth Set Border Agent Free (January 30, 2007)
Rep. Walter Jones(R-NC) commented on Two U.S. Border Patrol Agents In Federal Prison (January 29, 2007)