On the Hill: Putting Controversy on Hold

Congress may not tackle immigration reform this year, which could cause complications

When Congress finally passed comprehensive healthcare reform legislation earlier this year, many might have thought that their hard work was finished for the year. But, if they do decide to tackle the illegal immigration issue, the ensuing debate may make the healthcare travails seem like a walk in the park.

Immigration reform certainly meets the definition of a “hot button issue,” with most Americans having firm, definite views on the issue. But, legislative experts who lobby on behalf of the multifamily industry are betting against comprehensive immigration reform reaching the voting stage in Congress this year.

“The prospects are dim, at best,” says Jenna Hamilton, assistant vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB). “There simply aren’t enough legislative days left between now and the mid-term elections.” The ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has meant that prospects for reform have become even more of a longshot.

“Congress is dealing with the oil spill every day, and that means that immigration reform is pushed further off the calendar,” she says.

Betsy Feigin Befus, vice president of employment policy and counsel at the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC), agrees that the clock is ticking, with the added complication that Congress must deal with what she calls “must-pass” legislation, such as appropriations bills, as well as finishing the job on high-profile legislation, such as the financial regulatory reform bill.

The controversy that immigration reform stirs up adds further complications, Befus adds.

“On a great day, it’s hard to achieve consensus within the Democratic Party on this issue,” Befus says, noting that getting Republicans to join in is that much harder. Comprehensive immigration reform “doesn’t seem to have much Republican support, at this point.”

And that could be perilous for the multifamily industry. Besides the tough anti-illegal immigration law recently passed in Arizona (see
sidebar), some municipalities have enacted laws that some multifamily industry organizations
find troubling.

For instance, the municipalities of Farmers Branch, Texas and Hazleton, Penn. have enacted laws in recent years mandating that apartment owners check the citizenship status of potential renters before they sign a lease. While higher courts have struck down the laws, Befus says these kinds of laws “could come up again.”

In a recent update on the immigration reform issue, the NMHC, along with the National Apartment Association (NAA), says that five components must be included in reform legislation that would strengthen national security and the economy while discouraging illegal immigration. One of those components would be a “federal preemption that expressly reserves for the federal government the authority to create and implement immigration policy, including state and local measures that deal with residential leases and employment screening.” In other words, a measure that would preempt state and local governments from enacting laws similar to those passed in Farmers Branch and Hazleton.

“This would prevent that type of patchwork approach,” according to Befus.

The other components are:

• An improved border protection system

• A federally administered employment verification system that accurately and efficiently confirms an individual’s legal status to work in the U.S.

• A rational approach to documenting the millions of individuals who currently reside in the country without proper documentation

• A responsive guest worker program that would allow certain employers to hire qualified foreign individuals when other workers
are unavailable

The NMHC/NAA and the NAHB all support comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, reform of the immigration system.

While the immigration arguments may appear new, Hamilton points out that the U.S. construction industry has historically had a large immigrant component.

“It has traditionally been a path for immigrants to get a foothold in America, and get on the path to the middle class,” Hamilton says.

The NAHB vigorously opposes illegal immigration, Hamilton said, but supports the creation of a new visa system that allows more immigrants to legally enter the residential construction workforce each year, and be put on the path to temporary or permanent legal residency or citizenship. Workers would be permitted to obtain these visas dependent on economic conditions, that is, if the economy were booming, more guest workers would be permitted entrance into the U.S.

The NAHB, after offering initial support to Congress’ last swing at immigration reform in 2007, came out in opposition to the final bill. One major sticking point was a provision that construction contractors were to be held responsible if one of their subcontractors were employing illegal aliens.

That provision is largely unworkable, due to special circumstances inherent in the industry, Hamilton says. Because of the large amount of workers who enter and leave a construction site during the life span of a job, frequently for varying periods of time, such a provision is very burdensome for the contractor, Hamilton adds.

“If every employer in the United States is required to utilize the new verification system, and the federal government has new broad, information-sharing capabilities, the government should not need to require some employers to act as the police force for the new system,” the NAHB said in a 2007 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.), stating the organization’s opposition to the bill.

The NAHB, as well as the NMHC/NAA, also have expressed major doubts about the Internet-based system used to verify workers’ citizenship status, E-Verify.

“The E-Verify system has improved in its accuracy, and its accessibility to employers,” Befus says, but the NMHC/NAA contends that a major underlying problem is that the authenticity of the documents that employees use, and that employers rely on to establish identity, are still very vulnerable to fraud.

While the odds are against immigration reform being enacted this year, there has been some movement forward. In March, Senators Charles Schumer (D.-New York) and Lindsey Graham (R.-South Carolina) introduced the broad outline of a bill that would create a process to admit temporary workers, and would introduce biometric Social Security cards to strengthen the worker identification process. The outline received approval from President Barack Obama.

The NMHC/NAA has not taken a position on the outline, because it is not yet a bill. “We do view it as a positive step,” Befus says.

Although NAHB supports comprehensive immigration reform, Hamilton says that the reality is that the issue is so politically charged that reform may have to be enacted in stages. She explains that many Americans want the federal government to demonstrate that it is able to enforce immigration laws now on the books before new laws are enacted.

“That is not unreasonable,” she adds.

To comment on this story, e-mail dmosher@multi-housingnews.com