There are still ways for immigration reform to pass nationally

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Nicole Lim/Staff

You may hear that “immigration reform is dead” in the 112th Congress. But in reality, it is very much alive. It will just probably happen in pieces, not “comprehensively.”

A trend for new bipartisan immigration policy is emerging that focuses on two immigration issues: granting more green cards to educated immigrants and increasing internal enforcement.

President Obama advocated for educated immigrants in his State of the Union Speech on Jan. 25 and again on the Texas border on May 4. He spoke about the need to give automatic green cards to foreign students who earned advanced degrees in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. It has become known as the STAPLE (Stopping Trained in America Ph.D.s from Leaving the Economy) Act.

Similarly, he supports passage of a DREAM Act that would give a pathway to citizenship for high school graduates who had been brought illegally into the country at an early age by their parents and without their knowledge.

The idea of the STAPLE Act has been lobbied in Congress by entrepreneur billionaire Bill Gates and has bipartisan support. Representatives Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., both have introduced bills along those lines.

The DREAM concept also has an almost decades’ long bipartisan history. First introduced by Republican Orin Hatch of Utah, the compelling idea became regarded by Democratic Hispanic Caucus strategists as the major driver of comprehensive immigration reform. But in the last days of 2010, Democratic leaders allowed it to go to the chambers as a stand-alone proposal. It was never debated in Congressional committees. A quickly drafted bill was introduced in the House on Dec. 7, passed Dec. 8 and sent to the Senate a week later, where it failed a cloture vote.  While it was modified somewhat on the floor, in the end the bill was so disconnected from its original intent that both former Democratic and Republican supporters said they could not vote for it.

Now it’s back. In May, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reintroduced a DREAM Act that includes all the elements that were taken out in December. It can’t pass. So why did he do it?

It is obvious that with the Republicans now dominating the House and the president up for re-election, the DREAM Act has become a negotiating chip. That’s because E-Verify seems likely to become law, possibly by the end of the year.

The Legal Workforce act, introduced by House Judiciary Chair Lamar Smith, R-Tex., would require U.S. businesses to verify through the federal electronic E-Verify system that all their employees were legally sanctioned to work or face stiff penalties. At present, use of the system is voluntary, but the requirement idea gained traction after the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona’s stringent E-Verify law. Now even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports it.

But the four Democrats left on the House Immigration Sub-Committee oppose the legislation unless it is attached to a Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill. At a hearing on June 15, they demanded to know if every E-Verify witness would support CIR — their litmus test. Few agreed.

There are other pass scenarios for the DREAM Act, however, if Democrats really, really want it.  It could be attached to the STAPLE Act, or to a bill that would ease the legalization of more agricultural workers. Such passage probably would have to be traded for other immigration reform issues perhaps less palatable to some Democratic leaders, such as a reduction in the number of family unification visas or even a withdrawal of birthright citizenship to children born to birth tourists or to illegal immigrant parents.

Whether or not any new visa categories pass Congress this year, it is likely that the administration will continue to support stronger selected internal enforcement measures.  President Obama stressed last month that the U.S. is not only a “nation of immigrants” but is also a “nation of laws” (one assumes he meant “enforced” laws). The administration may strive to get more cooperation from political centrists by utilizing more thoroughly the relatively new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency — founded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Some Democratic leaders agree. New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer often says that Americans like immigrants, but they do not like illegal immigration. The chair of the Senate Immigration Committee often proclaims that the main way to stop illegal immigration is to prevent employers from hiring workers without work permits. His first hearing was on strengthening E-Verify.

Prospects of a high unemployment rate in election year 2012 make this argument sensible for vulnerable Democrats. At the same time, both parties seem to agree that retaining graduate foreign students will help make America more competitive as well as to double one of America’s most lucrative exports — a U.S. university education.

Peggy Sands Orchowski is a U.C. Berkeley graduate and journalist.