National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Senate, White House unveil bipartisan immigration proposals

By Marilina Sanz

Both Senate and White House proposals for comprehensive immigration reform — released Jan. 28 and 29 — advance similar ideas such as an emphasis on enforcement, an earned path to citizenship, improvements in the current legal immigration process and an enhanced employment verification system.

There are, however, some differences. Both call for greater coordination with border communities. However, the Senate plan calls for a Southern Border Commission that would include community representatives, while President Obama’s proposal calls for community liaisons within the Department of Homeland Security along the southern and northern borders.

Chart_Immigrants2011.pngThe path to citizenship appears to differ as well in the two proposals. While both establish a provisional status for undocumented individuals and have the same requirements for legalization, the bipartisan Senate framework links the process of becoming a permanent legal resident to completion of the enforcement measures. The president’s proposal doesn’t appear to have that link.

Some of the enforcement measures being discussed include cracking down on employers who knowingly hire unauthorized individuals, increased border patrol personnel and technology, increased numbers of unmanned aerial vehicles, and interoperability improvement. The Senate framework also calls for completion of an entry-exit system that tracks whether those who enter the country under temporary visas via airports and seaports depart when they are supposed to.

Both proposals would, however, require the individuals with provisional status, with a few exceptions, to go to the back of the line to apply for green cards, meaning that they have to wait until the current backlog is cleared. The two groups not subject to those requirements: individuals who came into the country as children and go to college or serve in the military, and agricultural workers.


Provisional status would not appear to grant access to health care or other federal benefits. As a result, NACo has been working with state and local government organizations to develop an amendment that would provide a funding stream — collected from the fees included in the bill — to help with likely increases in health and education costs.

Clearing the Backlog

The number of visas issued each year needs to be addressed if the backlog is going to be cleared. The proposals are very sketchy, but the president’s actually mentions that a temporary increase in the number of visas is needed. Visas are awarded by category, and there are more than 100 categories and subcategories. County hospitals, especially those in tight employment markets, often use the employer visa categories to recruit medical staff.

On the employment side: Both proposals have an enhanced employment verification system. It is unclear whether the employment verification system would include a provision requiring local and state governments to apply the E-Verify system to current employees. The House had this provision in its E-Verify legislation in the last Congress. NACo opposed the provision as an unfunded mandate.

The Senate proposal also has a guest-worker program for low-skilled workers that would be business-friendly and would be tied to the country’s employment needs. The Senate also wants to allow individuals who receive graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from American universities to adjust their status to permanent legal resident.

Senate staff are now working on turning the principles into legislative language, with a bill likely to be ready for Judiciary Committee review in March.

Meanwhile, a group of House members is also putting together an immigration reform proposal. It is unclear whether they will have one comprehensive bill or a series of bills. This group includes Reps. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

NACo supports comprehensive immigration reform, and the Board of Directors selected the issue as one of the association’s legislative priorities for 2013. 

Eligibility for Benefits

Under current law, individuals who are in the country illegally are only eligible for emergency Medicaid. It is expected that any reform legislation would keep current restrictions for those who acquire provisional status, including access to insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.

Lawful permanent residents must wait five years to be eligible for means-tested programs. There is a state option to provide Medicaid and the Child Health Improvement Program to children under the age of 18 and pregnant women without waiting five years.  It is expected that this five-year waiting period and the state option will apply to those who move from provisional to lawful permanent resident status.

Immigration Facts & Figures

➤ The illegal immigrant population in the U.S. was 8.4 million in 2000, peaked at 12 million in 2007 and has leveled off to 11.1 million since 2008.

 ➤ The national immigrant population reached a record 40.4 million in 2011 (29.3 million authorized and 11.1 million unauthorized)

➤ $18 billion — FY12 cost to finance operations of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and US-Visit, which identifies undocumented immigrants.*

➤ $14.4 billion — FY12 cost to finance  the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.*

* Immigration Enforcement Costs More Than Other Agencies Combined
Huffington Post, Jan. 8, 2013