Inside the immigration bill: Details, bureaucracy and pork


McClatchy Washington Bureau

Inch your way through the Senate immigration bill and you’ll find special stuff for ski instructors, cruise line repairmen and Irish workers. You’ll see "committee" mentioned 152 times, and task forces cited 39 times.

Welcome to the Senate’s 1,198-page blueprint for overhauling the nation’s immigration system. Few lawmakers probably read the weighty tome, so we did. And we found it full of exacting details, excruciating bureaucracy and a little pork.

Everyone with an interest in the subject is made to feel they have a say. Like the Department of Homeland Security Border Oversight Task Force, which will oversee border security policies. It takes six pages to describe its mission and membership.

The task force would have 33 members, 19 from the southern border region, 14 from the north. Among its eventual missions: "a recommendation as to whether the DHS Task Force should continue to operate."

Sounds like Homeland Security officials would spend a lot of time getting advice. Once a border strategy is set, it must be submitted to eight congressional committees, as well as the comptroller general.

Chances are lawmakers have read those parts of the bill. But given the number of lawmakers who confessed they didn’t read the 2010 health care law, the question arises whether they’ve read the whole thing.

What are lawmakers missing by not snuggling up with S. 744?

They would see how the bill dictates lots of stuff that has to happen — and not happen — as well as lots of stuff surgically implanted by senators to please folks back home.

In the protect-yourself category is an elaborate system to control the cost of government conferences. On page 71, rules dictate that should certain grant recipients spend more than $20,000 on a conference, government officials’ approval is required. The provisions follow reports of a General Services Administration conference that cost more than $800,000.

For those so inclined, there’s a section starting on page 113 titled "protection of family values in apprehension programs." Should someone be deterred at the border, officials would have to determine if they were a parent, guardian or child. Then, when determining repatriation or prosecution, they have to consider "family unity whenever possible," as well as "the best interest of such individual’s child."

The back of the bill has stuff lawmakers tucked in to make constituents happy. On page 984, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., set aside 10,500 visas for Irish immigrants with at least a high school degree.

That’s nearly half the 25,000 visas available to people with advanced degrees in technology, engineering or math from a U.S. college or university. Then again, New York has a huge Irish-American population.

Bilingual and multilingual ski instructors made the cut in the Senate bill, thanks to Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. (The word "ski" appears six times). Pages 1,037-38 describe how they could have an easier time entering and working in the U.S. under a visa program normally reserved for athletes and entertainers and allows them to stay in the country for up to 10 years.

Dave Byrd, who specializes in immigration issues for the National Ski Areas Association, said the multilingual foreign instructors are magnets attracting skiers from all over the world.

Currently, Byrd said, special visa programs are "designed for unskilled labor — think strawberry pickers, fishery workers, etc," Byrd said. "Ski instructors, on the other hand, are skilled and certified."

The bill lays out in precise detail the kind of security it wants along the U.S.-Mexico divide. In the El Paso region, for example, the bill specifies 71 fixed camera systems, 170 "unattended ground sensors," 24 handheld equipment devices, 31 mobile surveillance systems, and so on. There are also provisions along the southern border for four unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, 30 marine vessels, 17 additional Huey helicopters, 10 converted and five new Black Hawk helicopters and more.

The northern border gets far different treatment.

Starting on page 1,011, under the section "Encouraging Canadian Tourism to the United States," Canadian retirees can stay in the U.S. up to eight months a year, up from the current six, if they own a U.S. home or sign a long-term rental agreement. Canadian snowbirds pumped $4.4 billion into Florida’s economy last year, according to Statistics Canada.

"We’ve been lobbying for this for two years," said Evan Rachkovsky, research officer for Canadian Snowbird Association.

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