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US Legislative Immigration Update January 21, 2009

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January 21, 2009  

Right Side News Reports from the Federation for American Immigration Reform


Chertoff: DHS Has Mexican Border Violence Spillover "Contingency Plan"

Outgoing Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff told The New York Times on Wednesday, January 7 that DHS has "completed a contingency plan" to deal with Mexican drug-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border should such activity "spillover" into the United States. Chertoff said that escalating criminal activity close to the U.S.-Mexico border - which has led to the deaths of members of warring drug cartels, law enforcement officials, and innocent civilians in Mexico - prompted him to order DHS officials to develop the plan last summer. "We completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge...capability to bring in not only our own assets but even to work with" the Department of Defense, Chertoff told The Times.  (The New York Times, January 8, 2009).

The plan itself has not yet been made available to the public, but DHS officials did elaborate on some of the details in The Times article. According to the unnamed officials, the plan calls for special teams, aircraft, and armored vehicles to converge on trouble spots along the border. The size of the force deployed would depend on the scale of the problem. Military forces would be called on if civilian agencies such as the U.S. Border Patrol and local law enforcement authorities became overwhelmed - a scenario that the DHS officials said was unlikely. (Id.)

According to a military report released on November 25, 2008 by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, Chertoff's concerns about potential violence spillover along the U.S.-Mexico border are well-founded. The report states that Mexico "bear[s] consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse," because "its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels." The report seems to agree with Chertoff's decision to pursue a contingency plan, noting that "any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone." (U.S. Joint Forces Command Joint Operating Environment Report, November 25, 2008).

Public opinion on U.S. border security and the increasing violence in Mexico reflects the severity of the situation, as well. According to a national telephone survey conducted on January 8th and 9th by Rasmussen Reports, 67% of Americans are either very concerned (35%) or somewhat concerned (32%) that the growing level of drug-related violence in Mexico will spill over into the United States. 58% of the respondents said that U.S. military personnel should be deployed to the border if the drug violence in Mexico continues to grow, and 60% said that the United States should continue building a fence along the Mexican border. (Rasmussen Reports, January 8-9, 2009).


SCHIP Legislation Passes in House and Senate Finance Committee

On Wednesday, January 14, the House of Representatives passed H.R.2 by a vote of 289 to 139 (vote results), expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to cover over 10 million children, including legal immigrant children.  (Congress Now, January 15, 2009).   Current law precludes many legal immigrants from qualifying for SCHIP until they have been in the United States for at least 5 years.  However, H.R.2 included language that would give states the option of waiving the 5 year waiting period for primarily low-income legal immigrant children who would otherwise be eligible for the program.  (H.R.2, Section 214).

In addition, the House and Senate bills also contained provisions that would substantially weaken the eligibility verification provisions that could lead to many illegal aliens receiving health care benefits under the SCHIP and Medicaid programs.  The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that these changes could cost taxpayers as much as $9 billion over the next decade.

On Thursday, January 15, the Senate Finance Committee considered legislation to extend and expand the SCHIP program.  At the committee mark-up, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) offered an amendment that would give states authority to eliminate the five-year waiting period as it relates to children and pregnant adults making them immediately eligible for SCHIP and Medicaid.  Despite opposition to the amendment, it passed by a vote of 12-7. 

Committee member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) offered an amendment to strengthen the citizenship requirements in the bill, and Senator John Ensign (R-NV) offered an amendment to strike the Rockefeller amendment.  The Grassley amendment was adopted by the committee while the Ensign amendment was not.  The committee voted 12-7 to pass the legislation out of committee and send it to the Senate floor.  (Congress Now, January 15, 2009 and Grassley Press Release, January 15, 2009).

The Senate will now have to debate and vote on the legislation on the floor. If the bill passes the Senate, Members of the House and Senate will work together to resolve differences in the two bills.  President-elect Barack Obama has already vowed to sign the SCHIP expansion into law.

For more information about SCHIP, see Legislative Update 1-12-09.

Homeland Security Nominee Questioned by Senators

On January 15, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, appeared before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs for a hearing on her nomination. (Committee Website).  As DHS Secretary, Napolitano will play a critical role when it comes to immigration enforcement and border security.
 
DHS is comprised of many agencies, including several that are on the front line when it comes to securing the border and immigration enforcement.  Among those agencies included in DHS are U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).  USCIS manages several important programs related to immigration matters, including the E-Verify program - the voluntary program that helps employers verify the work authorization status of employees - and the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program, which Federal, state and local agencies can use to verify an immigrant's status to ensure that they do not collect welfare, health care or other government assistance when they are not entitled to these benefits.  (More about E-Verify and SAVE can be found here).

In her opening remarks, Napolitano barely mentioned the issues of border security and immigration enforcement, stating: "I have dealt with the immigration issue from every aspect since I entered public life in 1993. I know that border very well, and the challenges presented there. I look forward to getting to know the northern border as well as I know the southwest border, because it is different." (Napolitano's opening statement, Washington Post, January 15, 2009).

During the hearing, Napolitano failed to mention E-Verify, saying only that she would focus more resources to look at companies that hire illegal immigrants.  Napolitano said: "You have to deal with illegal immigration from the demand side, as well as the supply side."  (Reuters, January 15, 2009).  Reports also say she was critical of the Federal government's efforts to build the fence along portions of the nation's Southern Border, saying: "I don't think I would be giving good advice to the committee if I said that's the best way to protect our border." (Chicago Tribune, January 15, 2009).  As Governor of Arizona, the nominee also signed legislation opposing the REAL ID law, which aims to improve the security of state-issued driver's licenses.

Following President Obama's inauguration on Tuesday, Napolitano's nomination was voted on and confirmed by the Senate.

Freedom Finally Coming for Former Border Patrol Agents

On January 19, in one of his final acts as president, George W. Bush commuted the prison sentences of Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, two former Border Patrol agents who were convicted of shooting a fleeing Mexican drug dealer near the U.S. border while trying to apprehend him.  (New York Times, January 19, 2009).

Republican and Democratic lawmakers had urged the President to pardon the agents.  In response to the commutation, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said: "This is not just a day of celebration for the families but it is a victory for all Americans, while acknowledging our system is flawed, to see that if they are involved, if they speak up and utilize their freedom, injustices can be corrected."  (Rohrabacher Press Release, January 19, 2009).

A presidential pardon would have vacated Ramos and Compean's sentences whereas the commutation merely cuts short their sentences without vacating the conviction itself.  The effect of the commutation will allow the two Border Patrol agents to be released in the next few months.  (Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) Press Release, January 19, 2009).

According to press reports, the Mexican government condemned the decision and had lobbied against any relief for Ramos and Compean.  Carlos Rico, Mexico's Deputy Secretary for Foreign Relations, said: "This is a message of impunity....  It's difficult to understand." (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, January 19, 2009).
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