Of course, there are significant challenges ahead before immigration reform can be signed into law. Yet there are several reasons to hope and believe that immigration reform could happen this year. Political decisions are often if not always driven by electoral reality, and our politicians—even in Tennessee—have been noticing some changes in our area and nationally. We have changed demographically: immigration rates have been higher in the Southeast during the past ten years. We are a much more ethnically and racially diverse community. And the voting rolls are beginning to reflect that change. We have changed economically; immigration has provided a stronger and more diverse workforce for a number of area businesses, and immigrants pay more than their fair share of taxes, especially in a sales-tax-dependent state like Tennessee. Immigration continues to be a positive economic driver in the local and state economy. And we have changed culturally; immigration has been an integral part of our cultural mix since the first Native American — European encounters in the 1500s. Chattanooga’s history has had a robust cultural mix ever since. Those changes haven’t gone unnoticed—Tennessee groups supporting immigration reform this year include unlikely allies across the political spectrum.
The 800 pages of Senate Bill 744
S.B.744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” has four major sections, each dealing with specific issues in the immigration area.
Title I (Border Security) includes requirements for various border plans, triggers, and the structure for Department of Homeland Security oversight. Title II (Immigrant Visas) deals with the legalization of the current undocumented population, the regulation of future legal immigration flows, and the integration of newcomers. Title III (Interior Enforcement) addresses workforce issues such as E-Verify, humanitarian reforms, and due process protections. Title IV (Reforms to Nonimmigrant Visa Programs) addresses existing visa programs for nonimmigrant workers and creates a new “W” visa for lesser-skilled workers (such as the “blue card” for undocumented farm workers) and includes a startup visa provision for entrepreneurs from other countries who create jobs and raise more than $500, 000 in capital.
There are arguable flaws in the bill, most concerned with arbitrary cut-off dates on applications and limits on visas in some areas. And border security spending is still driven more by political expediency rather than data and qualitative research, as was made clear during the discussion and amendment process in the Senate Judiciary committee. This is nothing new, as most immigration bills since the late 19th century have reflected the political needs and prejudices of their day, especially in the allotment of visas for different groups and nationalities.
Still, most analysts agree that S.B. 744 would fundamentally rebuild the nation’s broken-down, irrational, and politically driven immigration system in positive and substantive ways. It would also provide an opportunity to remove (or at least tone down) immigration reform as a political issue and offer 11 million of our undocumented neighbors a chance to fully participate in the American economy and society. And that certainly includes the Dreamers, nationally, statewide and here in Chattanooga.