A comprehensive immigration reform bill died in the Senate on Thursday, June 28, when the measure failed to receive enough support to move to a final vote.
By a 53-46 margin, senators voted against cloture, a parliamentary procedure requiring 60 votes to end debate.
The Senate failure casts a cloud over immigration reform—a complex issue that has stirred political passions and splintered political parties and interest groups.
No one is predicting when or if the bill will be put back on the Senate schedule. In a statement, President Bush didn’t mention reviving it.
It’s also unclear whether Congress will proceed with pieces of reform, such as employer verification and increasing the number of visas for highly skilled immigrants.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said comprehensive reform is not possible before 2009. Lofgren has been holding a series of immigration hearings.
"The Senate voted for the status quo, and its inability to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform effectively ends comprehensive immigration reform efforts in the 110th Congress,” Lofgren said in a statement. “The House now needs to take stock of the situation to determine whether anything can be done to improve the current unsatisfactory system.”
Senate Democratic leaders haven’t given up on an immigration reform bill, but they aren’t setting a date for its return. A total of 46 senators voted for cloture—34 Democrats and 12 Republicans.
“It will come back; it’s only a question of when,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said on the floor after the vote. “We have to work more closely together.”
In the near term, it may be easier to address immigration reform piecemeal. For instance, Congress could take up employer verification because enforcement is an issue that draws wide support.
“I don’t know why we wouldn’t proceed to deal with that,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in an interview after the vote. “It’s a huge problem and relatively easy to fix.”
Cornyn, who voted against cloture, acknowledges that it would be expensive to put in place a machine-readable, secure Social Security card, which he calls a key to viable verification.
Senate Republicans who opposed cloture continue to advocate stopping illegal immigration at the border and in the workplace.
“We need to make sure that the administration gets the message that enforcement comes first,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, in a press conference following the vote. Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, suggested a supplemental appropriation bill to fund enforcement.
An amendment on employer verification could have caused controversy in the Senate debate. Written by Sens. Max Baucus, D-Montana, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Barack Obama, D-Illinois, it would have modified the delicately negotiated Senate bill so that employers would only have to verify new hires and those suspected of being illegal, rather than every employee.
Under the Senate bill, all employers would have to sign up for a government-run electronic verification system called Basic Pilot. They would have to verify new hires within 18 months and all workers within three years.
The Society for Human Resource Management and other HR groups criticize Basic Pilot as inefficient, inaccurate and unable to detect identity fraud. Currently, 16,000 companies use the system voluntarily. Under the Senate bill, all 7 million
The SHRM-led HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce opposed the verification portion of the Senate bill.
“While we supported the process, the Senate immigration bill lacked critical provisions necessary to ensure a legal workforce,” said Sue Meisinger, SHRM president and CEO and co-chair of the HR Initiative, in a statement. “As congressional leaders consider next steps, we urge both the House and Senate to recognize that employment verification is the most essential part of effective immigration reform. We urge Congress to adopt a safe, reliable and equitable system that meets the needs of employers and employees."
The HR Initiative supports cleaning up government databases and establishing a secure electronic verification system based on state-of-the-art technology that could incorporate biometrics.
Bolstering verification is politically popular because members of Congress stress shutting off the “jobs magnet” for illegal immigration.
Earlier in the week, the White House issued a statement touting the hefty fines contained in the Senate bill—up to $75,000 per illegal worker on the payroll—and the fact it would make it easier to hold companies liable for illegal hiring.
Even if immigration reform is not revived, the government will maintain its crackdown on employers, according to a speaker at the SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition in
“Work-site enforcement is going to continue, and they’re going to get nastier,” said Montserrat Miller, a lawyer at the
But government may ease up on immigration for highly skilled workers. Cornyn supports raising H-1B visa caps to make it easier for
The Senate bill would have boosted the H-1B ceiling from 65,000 annually up to 180,000. A group of high-tech companies that has been advocating H-1B reform was pushing for higher limits—and vows to keep up the fight.
“Today’s vote is not the end of the line, as we will redouble our efforts in both the House and the Senate to ensure that U.S. employers have both the tools and the educated workforce necessary for the U.S. economy to innovate and grow,” said Robert Hoffman, Oracle vice president of government and public affairs and co-chair of Compete America, in a statement.