As Republicans regroup after the Nov. 6th election, immigration reform has returned to the drawing board as a means of regaining Latino voters, who all but abandoned the party in 2012. Three days after the election, House Speaker Republican John Boehner acknowledged that it was time to address immigration policy.
“A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I’m confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all,” said Boehner, who is known as an immigration hardliner. He went on to urge legislators to consider a plan that would improve enforcement of immigration law while addressing the future of the estimated 11 million undocumented individuals living in the U.S. today.
Although Boehner did not mention a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, his recognition of the importance of comprehensive immigration reform marks a noteworthy change in Republican attitudes. Now that Republicans have reason to come to the table on the immigration issue, is comprehensive immigration reform feasible?
Immigration reform received little attention during President Obama’s first term prior to his June 15th administrative directive, which created a program granting temporary relief to young, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. before the age of 16. Many attribute the Obama administration’s failure to prioritize immigration to a lack of Congressional bipartisan support.
Some of the last vestiges of bipartisan support for immigration reform were seen two years ago, when Senators Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post, titled “The right way to mend immigration reform.”
On Sunday, however, Schumer told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he and Graham have resumed talks, suggesting that comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) might actually hold water in the new Congress. Schumer said that he and Graham are formulating “a comprehensive detailed blueprint on immigration reform” that has “the real potential for bipartisan support based on the theory that most Americans are for legal immigration, but very much against illegal immigration.”
Although details of this blueprint are as yet unclear, it will likely utilize the two senators’ 2010 framework as a starting point. The plan has four pillars meant to curb undocumented immigration and bolster legal immigration.
First, all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants would be required to obtain a biometric Social Security card to prevent undocumented workers from getting jobs. Prospective employers would swipe the cards through a machine to confirm the identity and immigration status of the individual. Employers who failed to comply or who hired unauthorized workers would be penalized with fines or prison sentences for repeat offenses.
The plan’s second pillar mandates further strengthening interior enforcement and continuing to secure the border by augmenting Border Patrol’s staffing and funding for infrastructure and technology. In addition to the biometric social security card requirement, Graham and Schumer’s blueprint emphasizes expanding interior enforcement to apprehend and deport undocumented criminals while also completing an entry-exit system that can track and report those who overstay their visas.
Lest critics worry that the senators’ plan focuses solely on enforcement, they have also detailed the means to develop a “rational legal immigration system.” They endorse offering green cards to STEM immigrants who receive PhDs or master’s degrees from U.S. universities (STEM standing for science, technology, engineering, or math).
Finally, regarding the most awaited and controversial aspect of immigration reform, Schumer and Graham detail a “tough but fair path forward” for the 11 million immigrants currently living in the U.S. without documentation. Individuals who entered the U.S. without documentation would be required to “pay their debt to society” through community service, fines, and back taxes. Provided they could pass background checks and speak English proficiently, undocumented immigrants would be able to go to the back of the line and begin the process of lawful permanent residency.
While Graham and Schumer’s plan is by no means progressive, it does provide the basis for a bipartisan discussion of comprehensive immigration reform. Their emphasis on enforcement and STEM green cards is nothing new for Republicans. However, working to accommodate low-skilled, undocumented immigrants by offering them a conditional pathway to citizenship is a significant departure from the extreme “self-deportation” rhetoric that Governor Romney endorsed throughout his campaign.
As Congress moves forward on the immigration issue, it would be wise to consider two realities that might challenge aspects of the Graham-Schumer blueprint. First, the plan’s emphasis on increasing border security may be misguided. Border arrests are at 40-year lows thanks to prior massive Border Patrol buildups, which has caused illegal migration to drop precipitously in recent years.
Second, Graham and Schumer’s plan should prioritize legalization, taking into account Americans’ explicit support of legalizing undocumented workers. On Nov. 6, voters offered a striking referendum on the question of citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already on U.S. soil. Exit polls from the AP and Edison Research found that 65% of voters said that most undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. should be offered a chance to apply for legal status, with only 28% in favor of deportation.
This starting point for a bipartisan solution to comprehensive immigration reform, while imperfect, is a significant step forward. The people have spoken—we’ll see in the coming months whether legislators are compelled to listen.