National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America


Bush Talks Immigration: The Good News And The Bad News

December 01, 2005

Washington DC - In speeches in Tucson and El Paso this week, the President renewed his call for enhanced border security combined with reforms to our immigration system.  Next week, the House of Representatives is expected to take up border security measures and enforcement-only approaches to immigration.  Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to address immigration reform in a more comprehensive manner early next year.  The following is a statement by Angela Kelley, Deputy Director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy organization in Washington.

First, the good news.

President Bush recognizes that the only solution to our broken immigration system is to combine enhanced enforcement and enhanced legality.  He gets that the only way to secure our border and restore the rule of law to our immigration system is to deal simultaneously with 1) enforcement; 2) the future flow of immigrants into the U.S.; and 3) the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here.  He refuses to bow to critics that he opt for the failed enforcement-only approach gaining momentum in the Republicans in the House of Representatives.  And he captures the key insight at the heart of needed reform when he says, "The American people should not have to choose between being a welcoming society and a lawful society.  We can have both at the same time."

Now, for the bad news.  As outlined, the President's plan will not work, and will not pass unless it is improved upon. 

The President's plan will not work because it expects the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States to come forward and apply for a temporary worker visa that will result in being forced to leave the country after six years.  Similarly, the plan calls for newly-admitted temporary workers from outside the country to leave the United States after six years.  This "return to sender" notion is neither realistic nor desirable.  Some 70% of the 11 million immigrants residing and working in the U.S. illegally have been in the U.S. for five years or longer.  The same percentage lives with close family members.  Few will risk signing up for a visa that requires them to, in effect, self-deport.  And many, but not all, future flow workers will establish themselves with jobs, family, and communities during the six years they work on temporary visas.  Instead of disrupting businesses, families, and communities with forced departure, both groups should be eligible for a multi-step, multi-year path to permanent status and citizenship. 
Furthermore, the President's plan omits the critical issue of family reunification.  Long waits and slow processing keep loved ones separated for years, even decades.  By reducing family backlogs, the nation can preserve the issue of fairness in our immigration system.  Those currently waiting in line to enter the U.S. through the family system should acquire permanent status in the U.S. prior to those here illegally who participate in the multi-year process towards the same.

Finally, the President's plan is vague on the issue of worksite enforcement.  While more resources are needed at our borders, the key to effective immigration enforcement is to combine expanded legal channels with a workable employment verification system as well as increased penalties for employers who circumvent it. 

Politically, the President's plan is also on shaky ground.  The Senate debate is mature and advanced and Members in that chamber are savvy about the elements of workable reform. A majority of the Senate Democrats and significant numbers of Republicans will only support workable reform.  While the Bush approach might bring along some in his party, many won't budge; and Democrats won't nibble on his half-baked reform. A majority will support effective enforcement and real reform, as opposed to enforcement-only approaches or unworkable reform.

If the President is serious about enacting immigration reform in this Congress, his administration will have to roll up its sleeves and get to work with the Senate to do so.  Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) have proposed an excellent bill that should serve as the template for Senate action.  Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) has introduced a strong package with meritorious elements.  Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and John Kyl (R-AZ) have submitted a serious bill that, although it suffers many of the deficiencies of the Bush plan, has components that would strengthen a final Senate bill.  And Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has promised to bring these bills together in preparation for a February Senate floor debate. 

This is where the action is.  This is where the solution lies.  And this is where the President should engage if he is serious about leading the country to tackle this difficult issue successfully.


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