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Policy Update: Reform Moves to the Fast Track

February 04, 2013 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Senators Release Principles

Immigration reform has moved to the top of the Congressional agenda. On January 28, a bipartisan group of Senators held a press conference in a packed Senate TV-Radio Gallery to announce they had come to agreement on a set of principles that will form the basis of legislation to reform our immigration system.

The principles are based on four “legislative pillars.” The first is creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants “contingent upon securing the border and combating visa overstays.” In the effort to get enforcement-focused Senators on board with a proposal to move forward and deal realistically with the undocumented population, the proposal presents an interesting twist on the “enforcement first” concept. Undocumented immigrants would immediately be given a temporary status that would allow them to live here legally and work. The temporary status would continue until certain enforcement goals are reached. Once the enforcement benchmarks are met, a lengthy process of obtaining permanent status and eventually citizenship would begin. DREAMers (certain young people brought to the U.S. as children) and agricultural workers would gain legal status through a different, less lengthy, process.

Regarding enforcement, the principles document predictably talks about strengthening border security, providing the Border Patrol with “…the latest technology, infrastructure, and personnel….” At the same time, there will be more scrutiny of Border Patrol agent conduct, and opportunities for border communities to give their input. The document talks about completing the entry-exit tracking system at air and sea ports of entry. A commission consisting of Southwest border leaders will monitor progress of border security measures and “make a recommendation” regarding the accomplishment of enforcement goals. The key word is “recommendation.” The commission is not intended to be a forum for any individual to hold veto power over a national policy on immigration.

Regarding the legal immigration system, the principles include backlog reduction in family and employment visa categories. Advance degree students in science, technology, engineering and math graduating from U.S. universities would be offered permanent residence. More lower-skilled immigrants would be allowed in to the country, depending on the state of the economy, and the principles mention creation of a “workable program to meet the needs of America’s agricultural industry…” The document also includes mention of strong labor protections in the section on new workers.

The principles also contain a section on “strong employment verification,” which will include “…requiring workers to demonstrate both legal status and identity, through non-forgeable electronic means prior to obtaining employment….”

For now, these are just principles. There are hundreds of details to work out.

At the press conference were Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Three other senators were part of the group—Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). In the question and answer session with reporters after the press conference, one reporter asked what made the prospects for this deal different than a deal announced in 2007 by a similar bipartisan group of senators. Senator McCain answered simply, “Elections.” He went on to say,

    “The Republican Party is losing support of our Hispanic citizens, and we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a preeminent issue with those citizens.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced that his committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration, will hold a hearing on immigration reform on February 13, the day after the president’s State of the Union address.

The President’s Principles

The day after the Senate press conference, President Obama spoke in Nevada, outlining his principles for immigration reform. The president’s principles were a bit more detailed, but largely similar in structure to the Senate principles. Enforcement and border security would be strengthened, in part by investing more in ports-of-entry infrastructure, focusing on removing criminals, and beefing up the immigration courts. There would be a mandatory electronic employment verification system, coupled with fraud- and temper-resistant identification. There would be a multi-step process for legalizing the undocumented, beginning with a provisional status before permanent residence.

Regarding the legal immigration system, the president would eliminate backlogs in the family and employer immigration systems, and give immigrant visas to students graduating with advanced degrees from American universities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The president said he expects to see legislation emerge from the Senate. If the Senate fails to act, he said he would send his own bill to Congress.


In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledged in a statement on the Senate floor that he will do everything in his power “to get a bill across the finish line.” On the House side, Speaker Boehner is reported to have said that it is “time to deal” with immigration, and that conversations are taking place in the House on an immigration deal.

Outside of Washington, there is broad support for reform along the lines of the Senate principles. In a newly released public opinion survey, 1,000 registered voters were asked whether they support an immigration plan that contains four elements very similar to what the Senate is discussing. Such a plan was supported by 77 percent of respondents, with only 14 percent disapproving.

While there is more bipartisan movement on immigration reform than there has been in years, it is still a long road from principles to legislation to law. Many Republican leaders, after last year’s election, see immigration reform as essential to the long-term viability of the party. On the House side, however, members running in gerrymandered districts are not concerned about the party’s national viability. And of course, there are the talk show hosts who don’t have to worry about running in any election. Some hardline voices have aimed their fire at Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was part of the Senate’s “gang of eight,” and whose own principles, published in an op-ed in the Las Vegas Review Journal, track those of his colleagues in the Senate.

Among Democrats, some are concerned that the principles have already given up too much—in particular, the length of time between legalization and eventual citizenship.

That issue of citizenship may be the most contentious. Some Republicans, even if they support immigration reform, may oppose citizenship in favor of a legal status that will never turn into citizenship. Democrats and many of the constituencies that have been pushing immigration reform, insist that citizenship must be part of the deal. Ultimately, however, if getting immigration “off the table” is a political goal, citizenship will have to be included. Otherwise (assuming a bill could pass without it), immigration will only be partly cleared from the table, and the same demographics and political dynamics that revolve around the issue of legalization will coalesce around the issue of citizenship.

The fun begins this week, with the House holding a hearing titled, “America's Immigration System: Opportunities for Legal Immigration and Enforcement of Laws against Illegal Immigration.” That hearing will be in the full Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of the new chairman, Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).

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