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Comparing 2006 House and Senate Immigration Reform Bills - H.R. 4437 and S. 2611

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Triple-Layer Fence

A section of triple-layer fence already in place along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House Passes an Immigration Reform Bill (H.R. 4437):

In December 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Reform Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437), a harsh immigration reform bill designed to punish the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States illegally. Passage of the bill sparked widespread protests from Latin American immigrants.

The Senate Responds with CIRA (S. 2611):

The Senate passed a much more moderate bill, S. 2611--called the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (CIRA)--in May 2006. President George W. Bush has largely favored the more moderate Senate bill. House and Senate committees are currently working to iron out differences between the two proposals.

Citizenship Path:

The major difference between the two bills is the citizenship path proposed in CIRA, which allows undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for five years or more to apply for citizenship by paying fines and back taxes, and immigrants who have been in the country for 2 to 5 years to apply for citizenship at border checkpoints. H.R. 4437 has no such policy, and many House Republicans vow that they will never approve such a measure.

Guest Worker Program:

CIRA also proposes a new H-2C visa for temporary guest workers, allowing employers to recruit non-citizen workers into the United States without violating immigration policy. Although H.R. 4437 includes no such provision, the guest worker program is less controversial than the citizenship track and has been endorsed by anti-immigrant leaders such as Rep. Tom Trancredo (R-CO).

Increased Border Security:

Both programs include plans for increased border security by establishing a massive triple-layer fence at strategic points along the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexican border. H.R. 4437 calls for 700 miles of fencing, while CIRA calls for 370 miles, but neither plan will seal more than a fraction of the border. Both plans also include funding for increased border patrol staff.

Changing the Role of Law Enforcement:

Immigration policy is enforced by members of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), who have been trained in relevant immigration law. H.R. 4437 would make all law enforcement officers responsible for capturing alleged undocumented immigrants; critics charge that this would invite racial profiling and other human rights abuses. CIRA includes no such provision.

English as Official Language:

A largely symbolic amendment to CIRA, sponsored by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO), establishes English as the "common and unifying language" of the United States. Although H.R. 4437 does not address this issue, many members of the House and a few members of the Senate supported stronger language banning federal officials from using any language other than English without special permission.

Increased Penalties for Employers:

Both H.R. 4437 and CIRA include stiff fines for employers who knowingly employ undocumented workers; H.R. 4437 uses a sliding scale based on the number of offenses (with penalties as low as $15,000 or as high as $40,000), while CIRA establishes a flat $20,000 fine. Both bills have special clauses mandating reduced penalties for small businesses.

The "Good Samaritan" Clause:

The most controversial part of H.R. 4437 is its so-called "Good Samaritan" clause, which states that it is a felony to knowingly or unknowingly "assist" undocumented immigrants. This endangers the families of undocumented immigrants as well as community volunteers, who are not in the habit of checking their clients' immigration status. High-ranking Roman Catholic officials have vowed civil disobedience against this policy should it become law.

Current Status:

The explicit goal of H.R. 4437 was the mass arrest and deportation of between 11 million and 12 million undocumented immigrants, a goal that many--including President Bush--denounced as expensive (costing nearly as much as the Iraq War), unrealistic, and inhumane. Many politicians who supported H.R. 4437 also received a wake up call from the millions who took to the streets protesting the bill after its passage, as well as polls suggesting that Republican support among Latinos would quickly erode if the Republican Congress were to make the bill law.

H.R. 4437 and CIRA ultimately died in conference, as the House and Senate were unable to agree on compromise legislation. Immigration reform was resurrected in 2007 in a piece of legislation that essentially represented a middle ground between H.R. 4437 and CIRA, but this bill, too, was defeated in the Senate. With comprehensive immigration reform unlikely to come about in an election year, 2009 is the next likely opportunity for reform.
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