Legislative Update: 5/28/2014
True Immigration Reformers Win NDAA Battle, But War over Military Amnesty Still Looms
In a blow to the amnesty lobby, true immigration reformers succeeded last week when leaders from both chambers of Congress effectively killed efforts to attach a military DREAM Act to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Despite efforts by California Republican Jeff Denham to attach to the NDAA his ENLIST Act (H.R. 2377), which would allow illegal aliens to join the military and grant them green cards and expedited citizenship, true immigration reformers pressured House and Senate leaders to oppose incorporating this measure. In addition, key Democrats in the Senate indicated they would not include a military amnesty in the upper chamber’s version of the NDAA either. “I’m all for the bill, but I’ve been told it’s not a propitious time to try to move it. Tactically, it’s not good time move it,” said Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). (buzzfeed.com, May 22, 2014) He continued, “There’s a consensus among people who support it even, internally, that inside this was not a good time to try it. Again, I’m all for it, but I took that advice but we don’t want to try something that would be counter-productive.” (Id.)
Though true immigration reformers won the battle over the NDAA, the war over a military amnesty continues. Despite previous statements to the contrary, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) now say they are open to giving the ENLIST Act a vote as a stand-alone bill on the House floor. When the Washington Post asked Cantor whether he would schedule a vote on Denham’s proposal at a future date, he merely replied that “no decision has been made.” (Washington Post, May 21, 2014) Cantor’s comments echo those of Speaker Boehner, who said, “There have been discussions about that but no decisions,” in essence leaving the door wide open. (Roll Call, May 20, 2014)
However, the biggest threat of all when it comes to a military amnesty may not come from Congress, but from the Obama Administration. Officials from the Defense Department, headed by amnesty proponent Chuck Hagel, testified before a Senate field hearing in Chicago on the merits of allowing so-called “DREAMers” to enlist in the Armed Forces. (Breitbart, May 20, 2014) Jessica Wright, the Acting Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness at the Defense Department, said the Obama Administration is considering ways it can administratively enlist certain illegal aliens who allegedly came to the U.S. as minors. Arguing that doing so would help satisfy the military’s need for more diversity, Wright said: “Legislation like this would assist the military and potentially our recruiting efforts, and increase the pool of eligible young individuals that we can enlist. While the DREAM Act may create a larger pool of these enlistees, it may also further the diversity of our department, our fleet and our force.” (See Roll Call Transcript, May 19, 2014)
To enact a military amnesty, the Obama Administration would likely call on Defense Secretary Hagel to use a provision in current law that allows the Secretary of Defense to enlist those who are otherwise ineligible to join the military if doing so would be “vital” to the country’s “national interest.” (See 10 U.S.C. 504(b)(2)) The Pentagon currently uses the provision to allow non-immigrants (legal, temporary aliens) with certain language and health care skills to enlist in the military. (See DOD Fact Sheet, May 2012; see also Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2014)
Cantor Takes Conflicting Stances on Military Amnesty
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is backpedaling from an earlier statement that he would not allow a vote on a stand-alone military amnesty bill. (Washington Post, May 21, 2014)
Within the course of a week, Cantor has sent mixed messages about the future of Representative Jeff Denham’s (R-CA) ENLIST Act (H.R. 2377), a bill that would grant amnesty to certain illegal aliens upon enlistment in the U.S. military. (See FAIR’s H.R. 2377 Bill Summary) On Friday, Cantor’s spokesman Doug Heye told the Associated Press that Cantor not only opposed inserting the ENLIST Act in the National Defense Authorization Act, but also bringing it up as a stand-alone bill. (Associated Press, May 16, 2014)
Five days later, Cantor took the opposite position. When a reporter asked Cantor if he would allow a stand-alone vote on Denham’s bill, he responded that “the Members [of Congress] involved are still working out the language, but no decisions have been made.” (Washington Post, May 21, 2014)
Cantor’s flip-flop came just days after Speaker Boehner opened the door for the ENLIST Act to receive a stand-alone vote. In response to a question as to whether the bill would come to the floor alone, Boehner told reporters: “There have been discussions about that but no decisions.” (Roll Call, May 20, 2014)
Cantor’s doublespeak is evidence of growing, simultaneous pressure from amnesty proponents and opponents. Last week, on a conference call Frank Sharry, the executive director of pro-amnesty America’s Voice, said, “Eric Cantor is the No. 1 guy standing between the American people and immigration reform.” (Politico, May 21, 2014) Cantor has also been recently criticized by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, and the pro-amnesty group Casa de Virginia protested at Cantor’s private residence. (See MSNBC, May 22, 2014; Washington Examiner, May 22, 2014)
Meanwhile, amnesty opponents have also been keeping the pressure on Cantor. Last month, activists booed and heckled Cantor while he was giving a speech in his home district. (Washington Post, May 10, 2014) In addition, conservative pundit Ann Coulter has called Cantor “amnesty-addled” and radio host Laura Ingraham has criticized Cantor for his “spinelessness” on immigration. (Townhall, Apr. 16, 2014; Laura Ingraham’s website, May 22, 2014) Cantor is also facing challenger David Brat in his June 10 primary. (Washington Post, May 21, 2014) Brat has publicly denounced Cantor as pro-amnesty. (Associated Press, May 16, 2014)
Reid Threatens Unilateral White House Actions
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) threatened House Republicans last week, telling them that if they did not pass an amnesty bill before the lower chamber parts for its annual August recess, President Barack Obama would have no other choice than to grant a broad unilateral amnesty through executive fiat. (Politico, May 22, 2014) “We’ve waited 329 days, we’re willing to wait another six weeks,” Reid said referring to the number of days that have passed since the Senate passed its mass guest worker amnesty bill, S. 744, last summer. (Id.) “But at the end of six weeks,” Reid continued, “if something hasn’t been done, then there’s gonna have to be a move made.” (Id.)
Pro-amnesty Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader made similar threats. “[House Republicans] have about a six-week window, from June 10 after the last Republican primary until the August recess. If they don’t pass immigration reform then, the president will have no choice but to act on his own,” he said. (The Hill, May 22, 2014)
FAIR’s President, Dan Stein, responded to the Senate leadership’s threats. “Under our Constitution, the Legislative Branch of government makes our laws. The failure or refusal of Congress to enact laws to the president’s liking does not entitle the Executive Branch to act unilaterally to negate laws that have already been enacted, or to implement laws without approval from Congress,” he said. (See FAIR Press Release, May 22, 2014) “President Obama has repeatedly abused his executive authority in the area of immigration policy, and it is time that Congress sends a clear message that further administrative overreach will not be tolerated.” (Id.)
Reid and Schumer’s comments underscore the amnesty movement’s belief that the window for opportunity is closing as the 2014 elections draw near. President Obama told donors that same evening at a fundraiser in Chicago that he believes “immigration reform” is dead if his Party does not maintain control of the Senate. “Think about it,” he told the crowd. “If we do not hang on to the Senate and make gains in the House we may not get immigration reform done…” (The Hill, May 23, 2014)
Will Obama Dismantle the Only Enforcement Policy He Claims to Support?
On May 15, during an interview with PBS NewsHour, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson implied that the Obama Administration may be preparing to dismantle the Secure Communities program. (PBS NewsHour, May 15, 2014; Politico, May 15, 2014) “The program” Secretary Johnson said, “has become very controversial,” and needs “a fresh start.” (PBS NewsHour, May 15, 2014) He claimed that the program ought to efficiently “reach the removal priorities that we have, those who are convicted of something,” and that he expected to announce a change “in the near term.” (Id.)
Through the Secure Communities program, local law enforcement officers submit the digital fingerprints of all individuals they book for comparison against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) databases to determine if the person is an alien. If the DHS database identifies the individual as an alien, that information is sent back to both the local jail/prison and the local ICE office for further action, including the opportunity for ICE to issue a detainer and begin deportation proceedings.
Johnson’s phrasing suggests this “fresh start” is meant to assuage concerns by amnesty advocates that the program will lead to the deportation of illegal aliens who have been merely charged with crimes as opposed to convicted. (The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2014) However, despite such complaints, the Obama Administration has found ways to undermine the effectiveness of Secure Communities. For instance, the Administration has already ensured that Secure Communities will not result in the deportation of illegal aliens arrested for “minor traffic offenses,” when in April 2012 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it would no longer ask local jails to detain such illegal aliens so that ICE could begin deportation proceedings. (FAIR Legislative Update, May 7, 2012) Moreover, the Administration even encouraged local agencies not to submit fingerprints to the FBI or DHS of individuals arrested for “minor offenses” to avoid detection of illegal aliens through Secure Communities. (Id.) As a result, even the Migration Policy Institute, a pro-amnesty think tank, has estimated that 85% of those identified through Secure Communities are not deported, and of those who were, 75% had been convicted of a crime. (The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2014)
Johnson’s claim that Secure Communities must be revamped to be more efficient is also telling because the Administration has long used the efficiency of Security Communities as a reason to dismantle other immigration enforcement programs. In 2010, ICE Director John Morton announced the agency may not pick up aliens identified pursuant to Arizona’s immigration enforcement law, S.B. 1070, claiming that expanding Secure Communities was a better approach. (Azcentral, May 19, 2010) Then, in December of 2012, the Administration essentially cut the 287(g) immigration enforcement program in half. The critical 287(g) program allows ICE officials to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies to “deputize” state and local officers as immigration agents within their jurisdiction; however, the Administration announced that it would not be renewing any “task force model” agreements with local law enforcement agencies in 2013. (See FAIR Legislative Update, Dec. 31, 2012) At the time, ICE claimed in a press release: “ICE has concluded that other enforcement programs, including Secure Communities, are a more efficient use of resources for focusing on priority cases.” (Ice Press Release, Dec. 21, 2012) However, Secure Communities, which only brings attention to illegal aliens who have already been jailed and fingerprinted, was meant to complement rather than supplant the 287(g) program, which trains officers to determine whether an individual is lawfully present. (Id.)
The Administration’s justification for this anticipated cutback to Secure Communities is that it will more “efficiently” focus on its enforcement “priorities” of aliens who have been convicted of crimes. Yet the credibility for the idea that the Administration is revamping this policy because it is determined to remove criminal aliens has been undermined by the recent revelation that only last year, ICE released 36,000 convicted criminal aliens from detention. (Center for Immigration Studies Report, May 2014) Among those released were nearly 88,000 criminal convictions, including convictions for homicide, sexual assault, kidnapping, aggravated assault, stolen vehicle, dangerous drug, drunk or drugged driving, and flight escape. (Id.)
California Senate Committee Considers Illegal Alien Health Care Bill
On Friday, May 23, the California Senate Committee on Appropriations held a hearing on Senate Bill (“S.B.”) 1005 which would make sweeping changes to the state’s health care laws by providing illegal aliens with health care coverage. S.B. 1005 first creates a state taxpayer-funded exchange to give health care insurance to illegal aliens. The bill then makes illegal aliens eligible for taxpayer-funded Medi-Cal benefits. S.B. 1005 is currently being held in submission by the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which means the Committee intends to discuss the bill further and S.B. 1005 may be set for another hearing. (S.B. 1005 Status)
Senator Ricardo Lara, sponsor of S.B. 1005, stated that the bill was premised on the assumption that it would reduce costs to California taxpayers. (Los Angeles Times, Apr. 30, 2014) S.B. 1005’s premise, however, contradicts the recently released Senate Appropriations Committee fiscal impact statement, which shows that if passed, S.B. 1005 will cost California taxpayers up to $1.3 billion per year. That figure also assumes only 40% of the estimated 2.5 million illegal aliens in California enroll.
The majority of the cost associated with S.B. 1005, up to $900 million per year, will be incurred at the expense of Medi-Cal, which is already suffering from budget reductions over recent years. (S.B. 1005 Fiscal Impact Statement; Los Angeles Times, June 10,2013) In 2011, the Legislature was forced to slash Medi-Cal funding by 10%. (Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2013) Reportedly, those cuts will already reduce provider accessibility and services and the overall quality of healthcare for the millions of California residents already dependent on Medi-Cal. (Id.)S.B. 1005 will only further strain Medi-Cal by depleting the resources keeping it afloat and further reduce access to quality medical services for all Californians enrolled in Medi-Cal.
Assembly Member Tim Donnelly, a Republican who represents California’s 33rd District, has voiced his opposition to S.B. 1005. “That they’re going to give free health care to people who are in the country illegally, I think is just nuts. And I think most Californians would oppose that, especially when you’re raising their rates and reducing the choices that they have.” (Bakersfield Now, Feb. 20, 2014) Donnelly added, “This is a bad idea every which way you look at it. And the argument that somehow it’s going to improve public health overall is specious.” (Id.)
If S.B. 1005 passes the Senate Committee on Appropriations, it will be sent to the Senate floor for a vote. S.B. 1005 must also be approved by the full House before it can reach Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for signature. A spokesman for Governor Brown declined to comment on whether the governor supports the bill. (South California Public Radio, Feb. 14, 2014)