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When volunteers with the ABA Commission on Immigration earlier this year were planning a program for the American Bar Association 2013 Annual Meeting, they were hopeful that Congress would have enacted comprehensive immigration reform by now. The Senate has passed a bill, but the House of Representatives has yet to act.
“We’re not in the place we wanted to be with respect to immigration,” said Julie Myers Wood, former head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who moderated the panel discussion titled “What’s Next With Immigration? Behind the Scenes With the Decision Makers.”
Comprehensive immigration reform is needed because the system is broken, said John Morton, who recently stepped down as director of ICE for a position in the private sector. He observed that although the agency is seen as a villain among immigration rights advocates, it is merely trying to enforce bad and outdated laws.
“The nation’s immigration laws have not kept pace with where they need to be,” Morton said.
Reform would affect the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the country. The Senate bill, among other things, would increase the number of immigration judges to ease case backlogs, provide a pathway to legal status for certain undocumented immigrants and provide legal representation for detainees who now appear pro se in immigration proceedings.
Despite the disappointment that immigration reform hasn’t been enacted, panelists were optimistic that immigration reform would become a reality within a year or less. Michael Neifach, former White House immigration policy director and general counsel at ICE, pointed to factors such as cooperation and compromise among disparate groups ranging from labor to business, the compelling stories of accomplished adults who were brought into the country illegally as children and would be granted legal immigration status with reform, and the effectiveness of social media in lobbying policymakers for legislation.
Juan Osuna, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review at the U.S. Justice Department, called the Senate version “a pretty good bill,” noting that immigration reform is a top priority of President Barack Obama and that the legislation is a good example of what Congress can do when it works in the national interest.