Recent immigration agency chief counsel criticizes House leadership for stalling immigration reform


“The House leadership’s procedural excuses for blocking a vote on critical immigration reform make little sense,” said Stephen Legomsky, JD, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis and the recent chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In that position, he worked intensively with White House and DHS officials and played a major role on comprehensive immigration reform proposals. “It’s now been seven months since the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill. Speaker Boehner should allow the people’s elected representatives in the House to consider it without further delay,” Legomsky argued.

The House leadership prefers a piecemeal approach to the immigration reform bill. It believes the Senate bill is too long.

“That’s fine,” Legomsky said. “Whether it passes one long bill with five parts or five separate bills doesn’t matter, as long as the legislative package ultimately covers the same ground. The point is that the House has done neither, despite having had seven months to study and debate the Senate bill.”

At any rate, Legomsky noted, “there’s no way to avoid length or complexity. Immigration law covers a broad territory. It includes the admission of permanent residents and 22 categories of temporary visitors, as well as the corresponding procedures; the grounds and procedures for deportation; border and interior enforcement; employer sanctions; the substance and process for refugee admissions; the rules for acquiring and losing U.S. citizenship; and many related issues. The basic framework hasn’t been overhauled for 60 years, while the nation’s demographic, economic and social structures have changed radically.”

“So size, complexity, and time do not excuse inaction. The real debate is, or should be, about substance. The House Republicans viscerally oppose legalization, or ‘amnesty’ as they like to call it. They argue that legalization should not even be considered for several years, until massive new enforcement measures (which the Senate bill provides) have been implemented. They worry that otherwise the administration will grant legalization while ignoring enforcement.”

“This is an odd claim to make against an administration that has been harshly criticized by the left for record deportations of almost 400,000 per year,” Legomsky observed. He argues there is no reason to wait and abundant reason not to.

First, he points out, “virtually everyone agrees that the current undocumented population is here to stay. The overwhelming majority of our current undocumented residents have remained even during the recent economic downturn; they’re not going to leave now. Nor have even the most enforcement-minded argued that 11 million people could realistically be found, apprehended, arrested, detained, prosecuted, judged and physically removed.”

“So the real question is whether we’re better off having this population continue to live in the shadows or out in the open. Right now we don’t know who they are or where they live. We don’t know their histories. We do know that their vulnerability gives unscrupulous employers the opportunity to pay them low wages and subject them to abusive working conditions – a strong incentive to hire them over U.S. workers. Legalization would eliminate that incentive.”

Critics also maintain that granting legalization will encourage more illegal immigration. Legomsky disputes this. “The Senate’s proposal would limit legalization to people who had already arrived by a specified past date. Nobody who comes in the future will qualify, and no one would have any reason to expect Congress to pass yet another legalization right on the heels of this one. The last major legalization, after all, was 27 years ago.”

Legomsky acknowledges one other concern about legalization – that it would be unfair to those who “play by the rules.” Some critics admonish undocumented immigrants to go home, apply through legal channels, and wait their turn like everyone else.

“That impulse is understandable,” Legomsky conceded, “but it rests on a common misconception about U.S. immigration law. To immigrate legally to the United States, it’s not enough to have an unblemished record and a willingness to wait in line. Our law allow only a few specific groups to qualify — mainly those reuniting with certain close U.S. family members; those with particular occupational skills needed in the U.S. economy; and refugees. If you are not in one of those categories or a few smaller ones, you cannot legally immigrate to the United States – no matter how law-abiding and productive you might be or how long you’ve waited.”

He adds, “most undocumented immigrants would be delighted to wait in line for a legally recognized status. The problem is that there simply isn’t any line for them to wait in. The Senate bill would create such a line and put them at the back of it – behind all those who have applied through current legal channels. And it would fine them heavily.”

Legomsky calls the Senate bill “a carefully balanced, thoroughly debated, bipartisan effort that would dramatically bolster enforcement, reform our outdated selection criteria, and address the current problem of 11 million undocumented residents.” He called on Boehner to “let his members vote.”

Stephen Legomsky

Legomsky is a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. He has taught immigration law for 30 years and has written several academic books and articles on the subject. His law school immigration coursebook, now in its fifth edition, has been adopted as the required text for immigration courses at 176 U.S. law schools. In addition to his recently completed stint as chief counsel of USCIS, he has testified before Congress several times and has been an adviser to President George H.W. Bush’s Commissioner of Immigration, President Clinton’s transition team on immigration, President Obama’s transition team on immigration, several foreign governments, and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees.