Immigration reform: a long and arduous road aheadPosted on Friday, January 4, 2013
There has been a great deal of excitement in the media and immigrant communities as both political parties have committed themselves to “comprehensive immigration reform.” Today, we do not know what elements might be included in such a reform package, or how far the final bill will go to change the status quo. What we DO know, however, is that the process of changing the law is long and complex.
Before a bill can be introduced in the Senate or House of Representatives, it must be drafted in precise legal language. For a large, high-profile bill, there may be many contributors, including congressmen and their staffs, Congressional committees members, nonprofit organizations, lobbyists, and other interested third parties. There may be several rounds of review and modification along the way.
When each chamber’s version of an immigration reform bill is ready, it will be formally introduced under the sponsorship of one or more Senators or Representatives. Each bill will then be given a number and referred to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, which have jurisdiction over immigration matters. The Senate Judiciary Committee, with 18 members, is currently chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The House committee, with 39 members, is headed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX).
During the next stage, which may take several months, the Judiciary Committees will meet for hearings and “mark up” (modifications) based on proposals made by committee members. After all possible amendments have been approved or rejected, the committees will vote on whether to send their bills to the Senate or House floor for debate. If released from committee, the bill will be accompanied by a lengthy report about its underlying intent and impact on existing laws and programs, along with statements of support or dissent from committee members.
The next steps in the lawmaking process are floor debate and amendment. The procedural rules governing this part of the process differ substantially between the Senate and House. In the House, a Representative must go through the Rules Committee in order to propose an amendment. In the Senate, a Senator can offer an amendment at any time without advance notice.
Once all voices have been heard and amendments voted upon, the final version of the bill will be put up for a final vote. In both chambers, a majority vote – 51 Senators and 218 Representatives -- is required for passage. Because immigration reform is such a controversial subject, there will be intense lobbying from supporters and opponents to persuade undecided Congressmen to vote “yea” or “nay”.
Should an immigration reform bill make it to this stage, it will immediately be referred to the other chamber for committee consideration and floor action. When a bill approved by one chamber comes before the other, it may be approved, rejected, ignored, amended or passed. If only minor changes are made by the second chamber, the bill normally goes back to the originating chamber for a concurring vote.
Both chambers of Congress must eventually pass identical legislation for a bill to become law. If competing versions of the bill are still in play at this point, a Conference Committee will be convened to draft a compromise bill that both chambers can accept. Presuming that agreement can be reached, a conference report will be drafted to summarize the proposed changes.
If either chamber rejects the conference report, the bill dies. Otherwise, it is sent to the President for signature. President Obama will have 10 days to sign the final immigration reform bill into law. The date on which it will go into effect will depend upon the language of the bill as passed by Congress and signed by the President.
Two recent pieces of immigration legislation provide insight into the length of time required for the entire process to reach its conclusion. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 was introduced in September 1999, signed into law on October 30, 2000, and became effective on February 27, 2001, sixteen months after introduction. The Child Status Protection Act of 2001 was introduced in the spring of 2001, signed by the President on August 6, 2002 and went into effect immediately, fifteen months after introduction.
Both of these bills were quite narrow in focus. Can we expect a comprehensive change in our immigration laws to be promulgated within a similar period? There is considerable energy behind the issue, but an enormous amount of work to be done. To keep you informed, Immigration Law Associates will be providing regular updates on our website and Facebook page. Stay tuned for further developments.