A day before President Barack Obama is slated to visit the Silver State and deliver a speech outlining principles for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), a group of U.S. Senators has unveiled its own set of general proposals. Although visible progress is a welcome sign to immigration advocates who thought they may have to wait until spring for any action, the details of what is being proposed are strongly reminiscent of past proposals that have not borne fruit.
Echoing all CIR proposals since 9/11, this one attempts to forge bipartisan compromise by tying any broad-based path to citizenship with “increased enforcement and border security.” Advocates of CIR have often asked in recent years what would satisfy this criterion if 400,000 deportations per year and a decade of constant year-over-year budget increases for enforcement are deemed to have not been enough.
Cheerleaders for CIR can find encouragement in the fact that the Senate is leading the way — although the political makeup of the Senate is arguably less conducive to passing a broad package of reforms, it also has higher procedural hurdles for advancing legislation. The most recent effort to pass immigration law reform — approval of the DREAM Act to offer relief to young undocumented immigrants — died in the Senate after failing to overcome a filibuster. Similarly advocates should be optimistic that broad principles are being introduced and a path to citizenship for all of the estimated 11-12 million aspiring citizens is on the table — some advocates had worried that only a piecemeal set of small reforms could pass both houses of Congress and that some groups might be left out. Finally, it is obvious that the political environment is different in 2013 than it was throughout President Obama’s first term: on this issue perhaps less so because he is a re-elected president who is seen as deserving to implement his mandate and more because the Republican Party desperately wants to make a viable bid for Latino votes in 2014 and beyond.
But the news is not all cheery when seen through a political handicappers eyes. First, the community of immigration advocates, aspiring citizens, and their families should know now that power players in Washington posturing toward a goal does not guarantee that said goal will be realized. The proposals being ballyhooed today are very similar to those put forth in prior Congresses dating back half a decade or more and changes in the electorate, where they have occurred, are arguably more stepwise than sweeping.
Some of the familiar ideas in this proposal include:
- More border security including the use of drones to patrol the borders and a promise to provide Customs and Border Protection with the tools and resources it needs to “apprehend every unauthorized entrant;”
- A path to Permanent Residence for aspiring citizens who pay fines and back taxes and pass a background check;
- Expansion of high-skill work visas such as the tiny number in the H-1B category;
- Provisions for an accelerated “alien entrepreneur” residency for job creators;
- An improved system for employment authorization verification; and
- Some form of guest worker program
Among the new approaches in this proposal are:
- An explicit “enforcement-first” approach that would rely on approval from a new commission of governors rather than the usual rhetoric of “we have to secure the borders before we discuss legalization”; and
- A new system for proactively tracking exits from the country to prevent overstays of temporary visas (one study finds that 38 to 50 percent of all unauthorized immigrants overstayed their visas).
Finally, there are a few potential poison pills in what is being proposed:
- The enforcement-first approach is engineered to provide political cover for both sides if negotiations break down or bills fail to win approval — one political party can point to concerns over border security and the other can score political points by highlighting its rival’s intransigence;
- We again see the notion that those currently out of status must “go to the back of the line,” but it is unclear precisely what is meant by this. For some visa categories (see the recent Visa Bulletin here) the “back of the line” is a far-flung place 16, 19, or even 23 years in the past.
- Universal employment authorization — many observers say that to truly achieve robust, universal employment verification the U.S. would have to implement a national identification card that every authorized worker would bear. Such a proposal faces staunch opposition from civil liberties advocates from both ends of the political spectrum.
- Ours is still a bicameral legislature, and any proposal must appeal not only to a handful of Republican Senators but also to enough Republicans in the House to make it to a vote and survive. The attitude that the Republican Party must moderate its policies if it is to survive is not one that is universally held.
All in all, we have this week signs of progress but nothing upon which to make firm plans or even friendly bets. President Obama will weigh in when he visits Las Vegas tomorrow and we will continue to keep an eye on these developments.