In his inauguration address, President Barack Obama discussed immigration reform as one area of focus for his second term. Now a group of Senators has come up with a framework that they hope will guide the process. And in an unusual show of bipartisan cooperation this coalition is made up of influential Republicans and Democrats.
The eight senators endorsing the new principles are Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Durbin and Schumer are two of the Senate’s top-ranking Democrats, while Rubio and McCain are the Senate’s two leading Republican authorities on immigration reform.
In a joint statement the group says, “We recognize that our immigration system is broken. And while border security has improved significantly over the last two Administrations, we still don’t have a functioning immigration system. This has created a situation where up to 11 million undocumented immigrants are living in the shadows. Our legislation acknowledges these realities by finally committing the resources needed to secure the border, modernize and streamline our current legal immigration system, while creating a tough but fair legalization program for individuals who are currently here. We will ensure that this is a successful permanent reform to our immigration system that will not need to be revisited.”
The agreement they have crafted includes four basic goals which take into account the sentiments of each side of the discussion. The plan is to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. This provision would be contingent upon securing the border and ensuring there is better tracking of people here on visas. Next the agreement allows more low-skill workers into the country and lets employers hire immigrants if they can demonstrate an inability to recruit a U.S. citizen.
Also on the Senate agenda is reforming the legal immigration system. That would include granting green cards to immigrants who obtain advanced degrees in science, math, technology or engineering from an American university. And the Framework would also call for the creation of an effective employment verification system to ensure that employers do not hire illegal immigrants.
Bear in mind that all of these elements are part of a “framework” for immigration reform legislation. The group has provided little detail to fill in the blanks, and any bills that may arise from these discussions could fail to live up to the lofty expectations this current announcement offers.
At the core of the agreement is the issue of creating a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States. Under the agreement, those immigrants who pass background checks and pay fines and back taxes would receive temporary legal status. However, that would only be the case after the federal government has achieved a litany of goals for improving border security.
Illegal residents who are given probationary legal status would go “to the back of the line,” as it were, and apply after those who are already working toward legal status. By meeting several requirements, such as learning English and demonstrating a history of work in the United States, those immigrants could earn green cards but would not be given access to federal public benefits. In short, illegal immigrants granted temporary legal status would receive green cards, but only after every lawful green-card applicant has completed the process.
That could turn out to be a difficult maneuver to pull off, and how to make it more workable is being left to future negotiations, which should frighten pathway advocates. The debate will play out as Barack Obama’s second term gets rolling. He’ll be looking to spend the political capital afforded him by his re-election victory on an issue that has eluded past presidents and stymied him during his first term despite his promises to the Latino community to act.
The new proposal represents the most substantive bipartisan step Congress has taken toward immigration laws since a comprehensive reform bill failed on the floor of the Senate in 2007. This bipartisan consensus on immigration developed with remarkable speed, undoubtedly the result of the GOP recognizing it must quickly shift in response to its November election loss. Republican leaders are reading that loss as a message that they are at risk of becoming a permanent minority in a nation with a growing number of Latino voters. President Obama got votes from roughly seven out of every 10 Hispanic voters last fall according to exit poll data. Meanwhile his Republican challenger Mitt Romney carried just over a quarter of the Latino vote, which made up a larger share of the electorate this time around.
While many expect the Republican-controlled House to be a problem for the passage of any meaningful immigration legislation, that may not be the case. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said that House members are also working on the issue on a bipartisan basis. It is “time to deal” with immigration, he declared.
The announcement of this bipartisan framework in the Senate, and talk of similar efforts in the House, come as the White House is gearing up for its own push for immigration reform. On Tuesday, the President will travel to Las Vegas to begin pushing for quick action. During a meeting with Hispanic members of Congress on Friday he said immigration reform is his top legislative priority.