An immigration overhaul bill is expected to reach the Senate floor in June following bipartisan approval May 21 by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The 13-5 vote on the bill, S. 744, wrapped up a five-day markup during which the committee considered more than 150 amendments but left intact provisions supported by the ABA that seek to improve immigration adjudication and detention systems.
The bill also includes provisions providing a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. Legalization requirements under the 13-year process would include learning English, passing a background check, and paying back taxes. Other provisions would provide a faster five-year track for those who have been in the country since before Dec. 31, 2011, were under 16 when they arrived, and graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a General Educational Development (GED) certification.
In a May 16 letter to the committee, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman emphasized the importance of provisions in the bill that provide access to counsel for unaccompanied minors, people with serious mental disabilities and other vulnerable groups.
“Without counsel, vulnerable individuals often languish in immigration detention at taxpayer expense while their cases move through the immigration courts,” Susman wrote. He said that appointed counsel decreases the length of immigration detention by reducing the number of appeals, claims without legal basis and continuances, and by assisting judges in parsing complex fact situations and testimony. Also important, he noted, is a section codifying the Office of Legal Access Programs and expanding Legal Orientation Programs (LOPs), which provide group rights presentations and other services, including pro bono referrals, to individuals held in detention facilities around the country.
Susman also stressed the urgency of providing additional resources to the immigration court system, which reports a backlog of 330,533 cases, with average waits of a year and a half. The ABA also supports provisions in the bill that direct the Department of Homeland Security to create secure alternatives to detention programs, he said.
During committee markup, the way was cleared for approval of S. 744 when committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) withdrew a proposed amendment supported by the ABA that would have recognized same-sex marriage for immigration law purposes.
Meanwhile, a group of eight House members is continuing to meet in an effort to craft a House version of immigration reform.