A bipartisan Senate group released its proposal for comprehensive immigration reform today. The proposal’s principles will serve as a blueprint for legislation intended to be introduced in March.
The announcement comes on the heels of an interview this weekend in which Sen. John McCain, one member of the group, proclaimed the “time is right” to provide a solution for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants “living in this country in the shadows.” It also comes a day before President Obama is slated to unveil his own ideas on immigration reform from Las Vegas tomorrow.
The brief framework, which can be found here, outlines principles upon which comprehensive immigration reform will be based. Perhaps the most refreshing part for some, however, will be the bipartisan acknowledgement of truths long understood by many immigration advocates. Common sense statements like, “It makes no sense to educate the world’s future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country,” that “substantial visa backlogs incentivize illegal immigration,” and that the “overwhelming majority of illegal entrants are coming to work” and require a “humane and effective system…to enter,” have long been missing from the debate. Simply acknowledging the problems that require solving is a small victory itself.
The proposal is broken down into four “legislative pillars” that recognize and address these issues, with a mix of old and new solutions. The first pillar provides an answer to the question most think of when they think of comprehensive immigration reform: what to do about the enormous population of undocumented immigrants already within our borders. Not surprisingly, this pillar starts with a focus on border enforcement, which has long held up hopes of reform with the attitude of “let’s talk about fixing the laws after we secure our border first.” The new proposal finally recognizes that the solution cannot be “either-or,” that part of securing our borders means addressing what draws people here so strongly that they would risk their lives to get here.
The proposal calls for new enforcement mechanisms, the feasibility of which will probably vary. Providing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with the technology needed “to prevent, detect, and apprehend every unauthorized entrant” does sound like a great idea, but it does not remain unachieved for lack of trying. Other solutions presented include a system to better track visa overstays and, one of the more innovative ideas, a means of inviting feedback from border communities – those who see firsthand the effect of illegal crossings and increased CBP presence in their daily lives.
In exchange for increased border enforcement, the relief offered to undocumented immigrants within our borders would be a “probationary legal status.” The details of this probationary status will certainly be among the most highly-debated provisions of immigration reform. If the past is any indication, the status will involve work authorization and protection from deportation, without the other benefits of lawful permanent residence, like the ability to petition for family members and a clear route to citizenship. The new status will require undocumented people to fulfill certain requirements, including registering with the government, passing background checks, learning English, and paying fines and back taxes. Many undocumented people have been doing the latter for years, using individual tax identification numbers (ITINs), in preparation for reform. Another member of the Senate group, Sen. Dick Durbin, described the requirements in this afternoon's press conference as requiring time and determination, noting, "But were it not for that determination, they wouldn't be here in the first place."
The framework leaves open just how “probationary” this status will be. It provides that proposed enforcement measures must be completed before an immigrant can move from probationary status to a green card. Exactly where “completed” falls on the spectrum between rolling out new enforcement programs to apprehending every unauthorized entrant remains to be seen. The proposal also provides that those on probationary status will have to go to the “back of the line” before getting their green card, a common feeling that those here unlawfully should not be rewarded over those who have waited patiently in line. But just how feasible is this when the “line” stretches back more than 20 years in some instances due to visa backlogs, as addressed below? The proposal does, however, promise a less cumbersome path to a green card for those who came here as children, a group long passed over by failure to pass the DREAM Act, and for agricultural workers, for whom a new program is proposed.
The second legislative pillar proposes to fix the existing system of immigration laws that has made it so difficult to immigrate to this country legally. The principles focus on two traditional avenues of immigration, through employment and through family relationships. In employment-based immigration, the framework proposes to offer green cards for those who get Ph.D. and Master’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) from U.S. universities, something long seen as a priority to stay competitive in the global marketplace. New reform would also address backlogs in family-based petitions, which create the bulk of the “line” often mentioned. Under current immigration laws, a limited quantity of visas exists for family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to come to the U.S. every year, creating a backlog that is handled by the State Department’s monthly visa bulletin. This backlog can be between 2½ and 20 years depending on the category of family relationship and also on the immigrant's country of origin, with a longer wait time in countries with a higher number of immigrants to the U.S. For example, next month, visas will finally be available for adult children of U.S. citizens from Mexico whose petitions were filed in March 1993. A Filipino sibling of a U.S. citizen whose petition was filed in June 1989 is finally at the front of the line. Meaningful immigration reform will have to address this backlog, which the Senate group’s new framework recognizes as an incentive to illegal immigration. But if more visas are added, where will they come from? In recent votes, for example, some lawmakers were only willing to add more visas for STEM graduates by eliminating visas in other programs, like the diversity visa lottery for applicants from countries with fewer immigrants to the U.S.
These first two legislative pillars provide the majority of the new framework’s substance, with the third and fourth pillars more focused on maintaining the integrity of the system hoped to be achieved. The third pillar would provide for a more effective employment verification system to ensure that employers can easily confirm their workers have permission to work in the U.S. The fourth would create a temporary worker program that can be adjusted based on current economic needs to promptly fill openings in areas like the agricultural industry, providing a more flexible system than the current one.
Comprehensive immigration reform and other immigration solutions have been proposed before, and this afternoon's announcement was rife with references to failed attempts, most recently the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's 2007 proposal. However, there was a spirit of optimism and an encouraging display of bipartisanship among the members of the Senate group. The proposal is a good start, with common ground being found on several principles important to reform. The weeks and months ahead are sure to be filled with discussion of the best way to carry out these principles. To finally achieve reform of a broken system, lawmakers must follow this bipartisan group’s lead in finding enough agreement to solve the important issues. Their success will affect all who live and work in this country, regardless of where we were born.