Monday, January 28, 2013

Big Changes Ahead For America’s Immigration System


Beating President Obama to the punch, today the bi-partisan “Gang of Eight” Senators released their “Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”  This is the first serious effort at comprehensive immigration reform since Congress’ failed attempt in 2007 under President George W. Bush. The Senators describe the framework as based on “four basic legislative pillars”:

  •           Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required;
  •           Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families;
  •           Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers; and,
  •           Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers.

Basically, the bipartisan framework recognizes the severe, longstanding flaws in our immigration system, which for too long has ignore reality and stunted our country’s economic growth, and, as a solution, it calls for strict enforcement combined with a long pathway for undocumented or out of status immigrants to “earn” their citizenship.  

Speaking on a conservative talk radio show last week, Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Republican Senator in the bipartisan group, said “the security component is a trigger,” nothing else will happen until the workplace security and visa tracking components are in place and there is “some level of significant operational control of the border.”  No doubt, that will be a source of much debate as this fight unfolds.

Here are some highlights from the proposal:

-          Completion of an entry-exit system that tracks whether all persons entering the U.S. on temporary visas via airports and seaports have left the country as require by law

-          Require undocumented or out of status people to register with the government, which will include passing a background check and paying a fine and back taxes, in order to earn “probationary legal status,” which will allow them to live and work legally in the U.S., but, like other non-immigrant visa categories, they will be prevented from accessing federal public benefits [this sounds to me like it would be a kind of “deferred action” status that immigrants here could pay for, essentially]; those with serious criminal backgrounds or who are a national security threat will be subject to deportation and “illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes [will] face immediate deportation”

-          Once the enforcement measures in the legislation are completed, those with probationary legal status “will be required to go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants, pass an additional background check, pay taxes, learn English and civics, demonstrate a history of work in the United States, and current employment, among other requirements, in order to earn the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residency [a green card].” 

-          Those who came to the U.S. as minors “will not face the same requirements as other individuals in order to earn a path to citizenship” [this appears to bode well for DACA applicants and perhaps a wider pool of DREAMERs]

-          Agricultural workers “who commit to the long term stability of our national’s agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population…”  they will earn a path to citizenship under a new agricultural worker program  [it sounds like finally a temporary guest worker program is going to be considered; the question is, will it be one designed by agribusiness for agribusiness, or will it be a fair program that protects employee rights and prevents abuse by employers?]

-          Immigrants who have a received PhD or Master’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from an American university will be awarded a green card!!!

-          Undocumented workers who have succeeded in the workplace and contributed to their communities over many years could earn green cards!

Of course, this is only a framework, filled with broad brush strokes, and tomorrow President Obama will unveil his own proposal for comprehensive immigration reform.  But, I think it’s a fabulous starting point.  It shows that finally at least some members of Congress realize that we can’t ignore the reality of at least 11 million undocumented people, many of whom this country relies on for its agricultural needs, many of whom came illegally as minors, and many of whom we have already educated but don’t allow to fully participate in our economy.  Not to mention our perverse current policy of kicking out immigrants after they have received world-class higher education here.     

I sincerely hope that this is a harbinger of good things to come.  And, I believe that this bipartisan effort is a direct result of the pummeling that Republicans suffered at the polls in the 2012 re-election of Obama.  It appears that at least some members of the GOP have had a come-to-Jesus moment, and, some like Sen. McCain, have had a come-back-to-Jesus moment, since he used to be on board with comprehensive immigration reform before running for president.  However, perhaps the most important player in this fight is Sen. Marco Rubio.  The question is whether he can convince enough Republicans to come with him or at least not stop him.               

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