Legislative Update: 5/27/2015
Senate Passes Trade Bill that Could Increase Foreign Workers
On Friday, the Senate passed legislation granting President Obama fast track trade promotion authority (TPA). (Senate Roll Call Vote 193) With TPA, President Obama will be able to implement part of his immigration agenda through trade agreements rather than through legislation passed by Congress. Specifically, President Obama — who opposed TPA when he served in the Senate — claims he needs TPA in order to finalize the Trade Pacific Partnership (TPP), a large trade deal with 11 Latin American and Asian countries. Although the specifics of TPP are being intentionally withheld from the public, the outline of the TPP released by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative indicates that a "key feature" of the TPP is a "temporary entry" guest worker program. (See FAIR Legislative Update, Apr. 21, 2015; TPP Outline)
While supporters of TPA dismissed claims that immigration is involved in trade deals, Senate GOP leadership refused to incorporate language that explicitly verified that. Indeed, both true immigration reformer Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced amendments that would prevent immigration from being included in any trade deals. The Sessions amendment would deny TPA authority to any trade agreement that "contains any provision relating to the immigration laws of the United States or the entry of aliens into the United States." (See Senate Congressional Record, May 14, 2015 at S2941) Prior to introducing his amendment, Sessions appeared on Fox News and said "they've used trade agreements in the past to dramatically alter established law and bring in more immigrants." (See Breitbart, May 18, 2015) Noting that TPA supporters say immigration is not involved, he added "we're going to offer an amendment that would make sure that this doesn't happen. It will be interesting to see if they're willing to support it since it would appear to comport with what they say they intend to do." (Id.) Similarly, the Cruz amendment said nothing in the Trade Act of 2015 or in any trade agreement subject to the Act "shall alter or affect any law, regulation, or policy relating to immigration." (See Cruz Press Release, May 13, 2015) Neither amendment received a vote prior to the Senate passing TPA.
The TPA authorizing bill now moves to the House. It is currently uncertain whether the bill has enough votes to pass. (See Politico, May 26, 2015)
Immigration Court Backlog Hits All Time High of Over 445,000 Cases
The backlog in federal immigration courts has reached a record high — over 445,000 pending cases as of April — a crisis caused in part by the still ongoing surge of unaccompanied minors (UACs) and families illegally streaming across the border which reached a peak last summer. (TRAC Immigration, April 2015; LA Times, May 16, 2015; see FAIR Legislative Update, Mar. 31, 2015) In an attempt to reduce this backlog, the House is seeking to increase funding to the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) by $75 million in order to hire 55 new immigration judges in fiscal year 2016. (Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill Report) The House Appropriations Committee included this new funding when it passed the FY 2016 appropriations bill for Commerce, Justice, and Science last Wednesday by voice vote. (Id.; see House Appropriations Committee Press Release, May 20, 2015)
The size of the backlog is not surprising, considering that there are only 233 judges in 58 immigration courts nationwide. (LA Times, May 16, 2015) Indeed, the head of the National Association of Immigration Judges estimates that only 212 of these judges are actually currently hearing cases, though 17 are expected to start by the end of the month. (Houston Chronicle, May 15, 2015; LA Times, May 16, 2015) However, it is far from clear that inadequate staffing alone is the source of the problem, as the scale of the problem has significantly increased during recent years. In fact, the backlog has grown substantially every year of the Obama Administration, more than doubling since FY 2008. (TRAC Immigration, April 2015) While it also grew during the previous administration, the acceleration was slower, going from 149,000 in FY 2001 to 186,000 in FY 2008. (Id.)
The UAC crisis has clearly exacerbated the problem. Since the end of FY 2013, before the height of the UAC crisis, the backlog has jumped by over 100,000 cases. (TRAC Immigration, April 2015) During FY 2014, 68,500 UACs as well as an equal number of aliens traveling in family units were apprehended by the Border Patrol illegally entering the country, and their cases were prioritized. (LA Times, May 16, 2015; see Border Patrol Statistics) Indeed, the juvenile backlog in particular has grown 68% since June. (LA Times, May 16, 2015) The backlog itself means that the UAC crisis may continue indefinitely — as the five out of six UACS who are not returned to their home countries can expect to stay in the U.S. for a long time before their hearing date. (See FAIR Legislative Update, Mar. 31, 2015) This sends the message that crossing illegally is worth the effort.
The large increase in the backlog during the Obama Administration may in large part be a result of giving more aliens apprehended at the border a hearing before an immigration judge. Indeed, during the House Appropriations Committee markup of the bill increasing funding for judges, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) made comments suggesting that such hearings were indeed increasing the backlog. (See video of Cuellar at House Appropriations Markup, starting at 32:00, May 20, 2015) Between October 2014 and April 2015, he said, 170 aliens detained by the Border Patrol were added to the caseload, meaning, he explained, every day the backlog grows. (Id.)
Connecticut House, Senate Advance Bills Expanding Education Benefits to Illegal Aliens
On Tuesday, May 19, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted 78-70 to broaden the law that provides illegal aliens with in-state tuition at Connecticut's public colleges and universities. (CT Mirror, May 19, 2015) That same day, the Connecticut Senate voted 24-12 to pass a bill that would grant financial aid to illegal aliens with deferred action under President Obama's deferred action for childhood arrivals ("DACA") program, who are currently ineligible. (Id.)
Specifically, House Bill ("H.B.") 6844 expands eligibility for in-state tuition to illegal aliens by changing the 2013 law that makes illegal aliens eligible for in-state tuition. (H.B. 6844) Under this law, an illegal alien must have attended high school in the state for at least four years to be eligible for the tuition subsidy. (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10a-29) H.B. 6844, however, loosens this requirement and permits illegal aliens who have only attended high school in the state for two years to become eligible. (H.B. 6844) Additionally, Senate Bill ("S.B.") 398 makes illegal aliens who are DACA beneficiaries eligible for financial aid, grants, and student employment opportunities. (S.B. 398)
Connecticut legislators advanced these bills despite the recent budget cuts to the state's higher education system. In fact, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy's proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 recommends cutting over $78 million from the state's higher education budget. (Hartford Courant, Feb. 18, 2015)
Opponents to S.B. 398 and H.B. 6844 expressed concerns that the bills will further strain the higher education system and divert money from needy citizens and legal residents. (CT Post, May 19, 2015) "What we're doing is hurting Connecticut residents in the process. I think we're hurting Connecticut families. The economy is struggling. Now we're going to take money away from them in the form of financial aid," said Senator Robert Kane, who opposed S.B. 398. (Id.) "Either the number of students accepted for matriculation goes down or the tuition rate goes up," added Representative Jason Perillo, who opposed H.B. 6844. (Id.)
The full House of Representatives must approve S.B. 398 and the full Senate must approve H.B. 6844 before they can be sent to Governor Dannel Malloy for signature. Governor Malloy already indicated that he would sign both bills if they reach his desk. (Hearst Connecticut Media Group, May 20, 2015)