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Obama Administration Prods Congress on Immigration Reform

By Phillip Kurata | Staff Writer | 20 February 2013
Activists holding placards in immigration reform demonstration (AP Images)

Activists demonstrate in Miami January 28 in support of immigration reforms.

Washington — The Obama administration has laid out proposals to Congress to enable undocumented people in the United States to earn citizenship.

“Currently there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants present in the United States,” Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said before the Senate Judiciary Committee February 13. She added that many of the 11 million have been in the country for years, raising families and contributing to their communities.

“For immigration reform to be successful, we must make clear from the outset to these individuals that they will have a pathway to earned citizenship,” she said.

The first step for the undocumented to emerge from society’s shadows is to register with the government, submit biometric data, and pass criminal and national security background checks, Napolitano said. Those applying for permanent residence will in addition have to pay taxes and learn English, she said. Those who came to the United States as children could get on a fast track to citizenship by going to college or serving honorably in the military for at least two years.

Another aspect of comprehensive immigration reform is increasing penalties on employers who hire people without papers. “When businesses break the law by hiring undocumented workers, it undercuts lawful businesses, creates an uneven playing field and hurts all workers, affecting wages, employee safety, and creating further demand for illegal labor,” she said.

The secretary said the government is introducing a mandatory electronic employment-verification system, known as E-Verify, that makes it possible for businesses to make sure that the people they hire are in the United States legally.

“More than 21 million queries were processed in E-Verify in fiscal year 2012, allowing businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States,” Napolitano said.

The Obama administration is urging Congress to enact another set of immigration measures to encourage investors, entrepreneurs and people with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math to settle in the United States.

Napolitano said a permanent-resident card, known as a green card, would be “stapled” to the diplomas of foreign students with such advanced degrees from qualified U.S. universities who have found jobs in the United States.

Parallel to these measures, the Obama administration is going to continue strengthening border security and law enforcement against immigrants who threaten U.S. public safety and national security, Napolitano said.

“The president’s reforms would create new criminal penalties to combat transnational criminal organizations that traffic in drugs, weapons and money and that smuggle people across borders,” she said.

Napolitano said the number of border patrol agents surpasses 21,000, more than at any time in U.S. history, while unmanned aerial vehicles are keeping the entire Southwest border of the United States under surveillance.