5 immigration issues Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton don't talk about

By Dean Dechiaro, Roll Call  |  Aug. 24, 2016 at 12:09 PM
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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have talked a lot about immigration. They're miles apart. And, somewhere in between, is Congress.

The presidential candidates have primarily butted heads over high-profile topics like border security, Syrian refugee resettlements, deportation policies and a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented U.S. residents.

But back in Washington, members of Congress have a longer list of immigration issues to tackle, which have received less attention on the campaign trail. Here are a few:

1. Cuban migration

Since President Barack Obama began normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014, migration from the Caribbean island nation to the United States has skyrocketed.

In fiscal 2013, just fewer than 18,000 undocumented Cubans arrived stateside. But more than 41,000 came in 2015. And that number is likely to be eclipsed by a significant margin this year.

The federal government's "wet foot, dry foot" policy allows any Cuban who makes it to the United States safely to receive an immigration parole, work authorization and, eventually, a green card.

It's a Cold War-era policy, and members of Congress from both parties say a crucial part of normalizing relations with Cuba means treating their immigrants the same as those from other countries.

Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, both of Texas, are pushing a bill (HR 4847) that would repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act (the legislation establishing the "wet foot, dry foot" policy) and make undocumented Cubans subject to the same restrictions as other immigrants.

Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona introduced a similar measure (HR 3818) last year, while Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent, is touting a bill (S 2441) that would end automatic refugee status for migrants. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, another Florida Republican with Cuban roots, introduced a companion measure (HR 4247) in the House.

Last September, Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, told The Daily Caller that while he supported Obama's plan to normalize relations with Cuba, "we should have made a better deal." His Democratic rival Clinton has lately supported normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations, but has in the past advocated maintaining the government's economic embargo on the country.

2. EB-5 investor visas

Congressional authorization of the lucrative but oft-maligned EB-5 visa program, which allows rich foreign nationals to skip to the front of the green card line in return for investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in struggling American neighborhoods, is set to expire at the end of the current fiscal year.

And a fight is brewing in the Senate over whether it should be reauthorized.

The program's critics, among them Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, and ranking member Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, argue that the program is stained by fraud and abuse. They've vowed to overhaul it or let it die before allowing it to be reauthorized.

Others, like New York Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas support the program and have resisted calls to alter it.

The program was designed to infuse foreign capital into the U.S. economy and create jobs in low-income neighborhoods. But Grassley and Leahy say that gerrymandering of census districts means too many investments are going to projects in glitzy downtown areas.

Schumer says holding urban and rural areas to the same standards would limit the program's benefits for city workers.

A bill (S 1501) introduced in February by Grassley and Leahy would raise the minimum investment in the program from $500,000 to $800,000 and would give the Homeland Security Department more authority, including the use of background checks, to investigate domestic and international fraud claims.

Schumer and Cornyn objected to the measure, opting instead to back a bill (S 2415) introduced by Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, designed to crack down on fraud while leaving in place current investment thresholds.

The program has generated little attention on the campaign trail, although a Bloomberg report published in March found EB-5 investments from China were being used to build a new Trump-branded apartment complex in Jersey City, N.J.

Similarly, Politico reported last year that Tony Rodham, Clinton's younger brother, is involved in recruiting Chinese investors for EB-5 projects in Philadelphia.

3. Guest worker programs

Last year's omnibus spending bill included a provision exempting foreign workers from the fiscal 2016 cap on H-2B temporary employment visas if they had been awarded one of the visas in the last three fiscal years.

The program grants visas to seasonal workers in industries other than agriculture. Proponents, including House members whose districts benefit from the hospitality and seafood businesses, had lobbied for the provision, but conservatives were outraged.

Currently, Congress mandates an annual limit of 66,000 on H-2B visas — 33,000 for each half of the fiscal year – but the exemption could mean a fourfold increase. Downplaying the waiver's effects, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin cited an estimate provided by the Congressional Budget Office that it would only increase the number of H-2B workers by 10,000.

The issue is persisting in Congress as it struggles to finalize spending bills for fiscal 2017, with proponents of the exemption pushing to make the three-year waiver permanent.

The House Appropriations Committee in June included the provision in its Homeland Security spending bill (HR 5634) after it was introduced as an amendment by Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland.

Neither Trump nor Clinton has weighed in specifically on the H-2B provisions, though the visas made a brief appearance during the Republican presidential primaries, when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz accused Trump of replacing American workers at his Florida resort, with H-2B workers. The claim was rated "half-true" by Politifact, a fact-checking website.

4. Biometric entry-exit system

For all the campaign focus over efforts to stop terrorists from entering the United States, the candidates have directed little attention to the Department of Homeland Security's lack of a biometric entry-exit tracking system.

That's not true on Capitol Hill, where Republicans have criticized the department for not moving quickly enough to track those who overstay their visas.

Congress passed legislation requiring the system after 9/11, though little progress toward implementation had been made until recently.

Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions recently called for the system to be installed following the release of a DHS report that said 500,000 foreign nationals had overstayed their visas in fiscal 2015.

The Homeland Security Department, for its part, has outlined difficulties in determining how to best implement the program.

For example, officials are unsure where biometric tracking at an airport should take place. If it is done too early in the boarding process, it may be impossible to tell whether a traveler boarded their flight; if it is done too late, already-maligned security lines could grow even longer.

In June, administration officials told Congress the department was ramping up its efforts to install the biometric tracking system in the nation's busiest airports by 2018.

5. Special visas for Afghan allies

For years, Congress has reauthorized a special immigrant visa program for Afghan nationals who assisted the U.S. military mission there and fear retribution from the Taliban. But its future is in jeopardy after the Senate declined to extend it via the fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill (S 2943).

The House's version of the bill (HR 4909) extends the program but excludes certain Afghans from participating.

When Congress returns from the August recess, conferees on the defense authorization from both chambers will have to decide whether to extend the program. In July, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a motion to instruct them to do so, but conferees will be responsible for determining the length of the expansion and whether it will provide additional visas.

The State Department says there are about 12,000 Afghans applying for the visas; Congress authorized a total of 7,000 visas the past two fiscal years, but fewer than 3,000 visas were still available as of early July, according to The New York Times.

An amendment to the Senate bill offered by New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Armed Services Chairman John McCain would have extended it for one year and added 4,000 visas.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of 30 House members urged conferees to extend the program.

Their calls were echoed by advocates, military commanders and diplomats including Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, who wrote in The Washington Post that "turning our backs on people who worked with us would appear to give credence to the extremists' lies."

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