CHN: Bipartisan Push for Immigration Reform

As unlikely as bipartisanship seemed after the 2012 elections, immigration reform has nonetheless entered into the realm of the possible.  President Obama highlighted the need for reform in his inaugural address and in a subsequent January 29 speech in Las Vegas.
He was joined in the call to fix our broken immigration system by four Republican and four Democratic Senators who agreed to a framework to tackle issues associated with the close to 11 million undocumented people in our country.

Yet there is still plenty of uncertainty.  The Senate “Gang of Eight” (Republicans Marco Rubio (FL), John McCain and Jeff Flake (AZ), and Lindsey Graham (SC) and Democrats Charles Schumer (NY), Robert Menendez (NJ), Michael Bennet (CO), and Richard Durbin (IL)) agreed on four basic “pillars:”  a path to citizenship for many of the undocumented, changes in the criteria for new immigrants, an effective employment verification system, and an improved process for admitting future immigrant workers.  Their framework leaves many important details to be worked out.  One key point that drew criticism from immigrant advocates is that the pathway to citizenship for those here now would be contingent on securing the nation’s borders, with no clear definition of border security.

The Senate framework allows those who came illegally as adults to gain probationary legal status if they pay back taxes and a fine, learn English and American civics and go to the back of the line among those seeking permanent legal status. Those that comply may earn a green card, but aren’t eligible for any social services despite their status as tax-paying residents.  Their probationary period could last decades thanks to the backlog in approving legal immigrant status.  The undocumented brought here as children (known as the “dreamers,” who are now benefiting from a path to legal status through executive action by the Obama Administration) would not face the same requirements and penalties as those who came as adults.

Despite the Senate’s bipartisan progress, there is still opposition among some Republicans to a pathway to citizenship.  Some prefer to grant legal status without citizenship.   House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has expressed reluctance to grant citizenship status.  He presided over the House Judiciary Committee’s first immigration hearing this year on February 5, which focused on ways to change the criteria for admitting new immigrants, such as greater emphasis on educational attainment.  The Senate Gang of Eight proposals also encourage legal status among immigrants earning graduate degrees in the United States, providing them with green cards after graduation.

Undocumented workers have been an undeniable economic force.  Not only have they kept American industries afloat by supplying low-wage labor, but they also pay taxes.  A CBO study shows that about 50-75% of undocumented workers pay state sales taxes and federal and state income taxes.  Additionally, undocumented workers contribute billions of dollars through Social Security and Medicare taxes, programs from which they are unlikely to benefit.

Understanding the economic impact of undocumented workers, the Senators who developed the bipartisan framework propose an agricultural worker program, which establishes another different, yet again unknown process towards legal status.  Though the program will ensure a steady supply of labor to the American agriculture industry, caution should be taken.  A proposal built around temporary and restricted legal status to work is likely to keep wages for back-breaking work exploitively low.

Additionally, non-agricultural workers still need to comply with the framework for the system to work.  Under the current provisions, it remains to be seen if the proper incentives exist to go through this burdensome legalization process.  For some undocumented people who must pay back taxes and fines, learn English and American civics and wait up to thirty years just to obtain lawful permanent residency without access to public benefits, the risk of immigrating illegally may be preferable.

Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform view this as a human rights issue. Perhaps the political impetus of both parties to satisfy the increasingly powerful Latino voters can overcome the roadblocks to reform and extend rights to millions now without the protections of law.