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Senate Immigration Bill Piles Costs on Citizen Hopefuls

by Michelle Chen

As "compromise" legislation made its way past various obstacles, lawmakers tacked on amendments intended to make the bill harsher and harder to pass, and citizenship harder to achieve.

May 31, 2006 – Under the immigration-reform bill rolled out by the Senate, undocumented immigrants would face heavy tolls on the so-called "path to citizenship."

The final legislation, approved by a 62–36 vote last Thursday, would erect a battery of economic hurdles as a condition of legalizing, forcing undocumented immigrants to pay $2,000 in fines, plus application processing fees, along with restitution for any outstanding income taxes.

During the final deliberations, dissenting senators who ultimately voted against the bill ratcheted up the price with amendments. The additional rules would impose extra financial penalties on households and then intensify the burden by blocking access to tax relief for working families.

The lawmakers supporting the financial penalties, now estimated at more than $3,000, argue that immigrants should be forced to compensate for the supposed economic strain they place on public resources. But advocacy groups say that despite rhetoric about bringing immigrants "out of the shadows," Congress is making legalization prohibitively expensive – and, in turn, codifying a second-class citizenry.

"The purpose of immigration reform was to fix the inequities in the system, not deepen them" said Jonathan Blazer, a public-benefits policy attorney with the legal advocacy group National Immigration Law Center.

One provision inserted during the final days of negotiation would harden the bill’s requirement that immigrants pay outstanding taxes; it would bar them from collecting refunds from retroactive filings. Another amendment would impose a $750 "surcharge" on immigrants who adjust their immigration status, supposedly to help states fund social services for non-citizens.

Advocacy groups say that despite rhetoric about bringing immigrants “out of the shadows,” Congress is codifying a second-class citizenry.

Still another measure would impose a fee that would be used to fund programs to beef up security at the border.

One of the harshest penalties was proposed by Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada) and passed by a vote of 50–43. The amendment would bar immigrants paying back taxes from accessing the Earned Income Tax Credit, a flagship anti-poverty tax scheme that each year provides on average over $2,000 to low- and moderate-income families, including many immigrant households. The measure would also cut off access to standard tax credits and refunds generally accessible to all taxpayers, such as the child tax credit.

Blazer said the Ensign amendment "could certainly prevent many immigrants from eventually being able to obtain lawful permanent residency" by simply pricing them out of the legalization program. "Those who could afford it," he added, "would likely have to divert all savings from their low incomes for this purpose… [and] to pay penalties that border on extortion."

In his floor speech, Ensign presented the amendment as a penalty on the widespread practice of undocumented workers using fraudulent Social Security numbers to obtain jobs in the mainstream workforce. He argued, "I don’t think it is right to ask the American people, ‘OK, forgive them for the felony of stealing Social Security numbers, we are going to give you amnesty… and on top of that, we are going to write you a check.’"

Some critics of the reform measuresfear the bill could distort the tax code into a system for punishing undocumented taxpayers.

The amendment, which superseded an even more controversial proposal that would have eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit even after legalization, has raised fears that immigration reform could distort the tax code into a system for punishing undocumented taxpayers.

Stacy Dean, a policy analyst with the progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told The NewStandard that while "immigrants are trying to come out of the shadows, file their taxes and make themselves right with the system, [the Ensign amendment] isn’t about making yourself right. It’s about only paying – and not the tax system treating you equally as it would any other person."

Blazer said that the amendment could also impact immigrants who have paid taxes while working illegally, by forcing them to retroactively compensate for the tax credits they accrued in the past. Many undocumented workers already pay regularly into the federal tax system, which under existing policies collects payments without regard to the filer’s immigration status.

Luisa Grillo-Chope, a policy analyst with the Latino advocacy association National Council of La Raza, noted that the tax burden would weigh even more heavily on poor immigrant households. She called the Earned Income credit "the one thing that would help offset how difficult this is going to be for some people."

A separate amendment authored by Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) would further expand the back-tax requirement to cover all unpaid taxes, as opposed to filings from three of the previous five years, as originally proposed.

“Only the most hateful politician would promote legislation that tramples on people’s civil and human rights--and then charges them to do so."

The punitive tax provisions were fueled by anxieties over Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates for the fiscal impact of the original Senate bill. CBO projected that the proposed measures would have increased federal benefits spending by some $54 billion over the next decade through public-assistance programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, and government tax credits.

But an analysis of this data by the CBPP found that the Senate reforms as originally proposed would have yielded fiscal gains for the government, skimming about $66 billion from immigrants through taxes and fees over the same period. Nonetheless, the added financial penalties aim to maximize the benefit to the government by sapping even more from immigrants seeking legalization.

While the tax restrictions purport to buffer federal coffers, an amendment introduced by Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), chair of the Immigration and Border Security subcommittee, would force legalizing immigrants to pay a $750 fee, plus $100 for each spouse or child, which would go to fund state-level health and education services for immigrants.

Though Cornyn has described such public services as an "unfunded mandate" for states, opponents say the fee addresses the systematic underfunding of state programs by paradoxically heaping more of the burden onto underserved communities.

Blazer explained that the immigrants impacted by the fee would simultaneously be paying income taxes, "and those taxes should support those services – [were it not for] the federal government restricting money from going back to the states to pay for services to immigrants."

On top of covering the supposed social costs of immigration, the bill would also extract money from immigrant households and funnel it toward the US-Mexico border. An amendment introduced by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia), and approved by a 73–25 vote, would assess a $500 "supplemental" fee on immigrants to fund programs for surveillance, detention and construction projects along the border to prevent others from crossing illegally.

Alexis Mazon, an organizer with the grassroots group Coalición de Derechos Humanos, sees the provision as a double penalty on immigrants. "Only the most hateful politician would promote legislation that tramples on people’s civil and human rights and then charges them to do so," she said.

Deepening the bill’s monetary penalties are other provisions that some critics see as hostile roadblocks on the "path to citizenship": A tiered legalization process would place exclusionary strictures on undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the country for less than five years. Immigrants with more than five years of residency would qualify for the Senate’s "earned adjustment" program, but would have to wait six to eight years before obtaining full, lawful, permanent-resident status. From there, it would generally be another five years under current federal law before they could potentially qualify for benefits available to citizens, such as Medicaid.

Some immigrant advocates fear that the congressional dialogue has moved away from the question of equity, dissolving into an economic calculus of the "cost" versus "benefits" of immigration reform, while ignoring immigrants’ role as stakeholders in their communities.

Esther Nieves, of the Quaker peace group American Friends Service Committee, is more concerned with what immigrants contribute beyond monetary terms. "They live here, they work here, they have married here, they worship in our local churches," she told TNS. "We’re losing that in the sound bites that are coming out of Congress."

Dani Martinez-Moore, an advocate with the anti-poverty organization North Carolina Justice Center, said the narrowness of the ongoing immigration debate betrays an underlying disrespect. "Conversations about one population's ‘worth’ or economic contributions," she said, "only seem to come up when our leaders are targeting and attacking vulnerable and disenfranchised groups, who don't a have a voice in our public-policy debates."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Article originally appeared in the May 31, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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