Getting Off the Fence: Why Immigration Reform Can’t Wait

During President Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, he advocated for immigration reform on pivotal issues such as tightening borders, cracking down on employers of illegal immigrants, and establishing an “effective way to recognize and legalize undocumented workers who are here.”[1]The 2008 Democratic platform on immigration included plans for allowing illegals to “get right with the law,” requiring those “in good standing to pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens.”[2] Not only did Obama promise comprehensive reforms, he promised them quickly, stating in a 2009 White House video,  “We’ve got a responsible set of leaders… who want to get something done, and not put it off until a year, two years, three years, five years from now, but to start working on this thing right now.” Not only have legislators put off immigration reform much longer than Obama had initially hoped, it now seems that reform may be unreachable entirely during his presidency.

Immigration reform is necessary, and necessary now, not only to mend the president’s broken promises, but also to improve America’s homeland security and agriculture production, and to increase tax revenues. It is an issue involving some of the most closely guarded ideals of both Democrats and Republicans, and both parties could stand to gain from an updated policy. A feasible solution to America’s immigration problem lies within S.744, a widely encompassing immigration reform bill proposed by the “Gang of Eight,” a group of eight bipartisan senators, including John McCain. They proposed the bill last spring and the Senate passed it in June. It includes five sections: Border Security, Immigrant Visas, Interior Enforcement, Reforms to Nonimmigrant Visa Programs, and Jobs for Youth, that address America’s most pressing immigration issues.

In January 2014, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner seemed to back immigration reform, at least on a basic level. He hired Rebecca Tallent, a former immigration adviser to Senator McCain, bolstering what seemed to be a serious commitment to “revamping the immigration system.”[3] McCain is a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform and played a key role in drafting a bipartisan bill that included a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for current illegal residents and “an improved process for admitting future workers.”[4] But in recent remarks, Boehner blamed a lack of “trust” with the president for blocking reform from passing this year.[5] Given the Speaker’s reluctance, an immigration bill is unlikely to pass. Setting partisan struggles aside is crucial for American immigration reform.

Taking immigration reform off the agenda would likely contribute to decreased security, former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano argued. Napolitano cited system failures as a result of human error that contributed to terrorist attacks, including the Boston bombings and 9/11, according to a New York Times article. Through proposed reform measures, a new electronic system would allow people traveling in and out of the country to be tracked and eliminate errors that occur when information is copied manually. For example, some of the 9/11 hijackers were in the country on expired student visas, a detail the system failed to recognize. With an electronic tracking system in place, the expired visas would have been discovered, perhaps reducing the number of hijackers able to participate in the attack.[6] This demonstrates a rapidly emerging place for technology in improving security; laws should be up to date with the latest advancements in order to be more efficient and effective.

Failing to comprehensively reform immigration policy neglects the need for immigrant agricultural workers, without whom food prices would rise “an additional 5 percent to 6 percent over the next five years.” Farmers are wary of an “enforcement only” approach to immigration, namely increasing border security while offering no path to citizenship, because it is difficult to find Americans to do the jobs currently filled by immigrants. Reworking the H-2A visa, an agribusinesses temporary worker program, to allow workers to stay for a period of one year is essential. Farmers argue that these provisions are insufficient for certain industries that are year-round rather than seasonal. [7] Extending the visa could also allow immigrants a “trial period” to assimilate to American life and culture, and more time to potentially earn their citizenship and stay in the US.  This would help satisfy Republican concerns, such as maintaining English as the primary national language. [8]

Immigration reform is crucial due to America’s desperate need for a high-earning generation. The baby boomers are rapidly approaching 65, the legal retirement age, and will put a strain on both Medicare and Social Security.  Most baby boomers plan to retire past the age of 65, and Millennials will be an integral part of relieving the strain on Medicare and Social Security. More efficient immigration, especially fast-tracking a path to citizenship for illegal youth born in the US, would also lead to a larger working population and higher tax revenues.

S.744 proposes a thoughtful plan that both parties could agree on. Fortunately for many enforcement-oriented conservatives, border security is the major priority of S.744. Title I, the first section, “establishes that the security of the border is a primary concern” and stipulates that certain security goals, or “‘triggers’ must be achieved before other provisions of the bill are implemented”. [9] These triggers include supplementing current border patrol with almost 20,000 more troops, to a total no fewer than 38,405, and the construction of at least 700 miles of fencing along the border. Title I also mentions an increased use of technology in border protection efforts, such as mobile surveillance systems, among other detection devices. While America’s prior defense spending has been nothing to scoff at, totaling more than the next 13 largest defense budgets combined, Title I would be allotted a whopping initial fund of $46.3 billion, outspending all previous border security spending. [10]

Bolstering border patrol and expanding fencing along the border would placate conservatives and might help reduce the number of illegal immigrants entering the country. However, rather than focusing primarily on enforcement and deterring the establishment of a path to citizenship until after enforcement “triggers” have been reached, it would be more effective to distribute funding more evenly between enforcement and efforts to establish a path to citizenship. According to the Immigration Policy Center, “Since the last major legalization program for unauthorized immigrants in 1986, the federal government has spent an estimated $186.8 billion on immigration enforcement. Yet during that time, the unauthorized population has tripled in size to 11 million.”[11] This statistic illustrates the ineffectiveness of an enforcement-only policy.  For this reason, it is also important that the two goals develop in tandem. The US can not afford to waste another 30 years waiting to see if an enforcement-only policy will work. Additionally, implementing a dual approach would address the approximately 11.7 million illegal immigrants already living in the US. [12]

Although not its priority, the most crucial provision of S.744 is a possible path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently residing in the US. Title II, Immigrant Visas, would allow current illegal residents to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, provided they do not have any felony or more than two misdemeanor charges, they pay back taxes and application fees, and pay a $1,000 penalty fine. Undocumented immigrants can apply for RPI status, which lasts for a six-year period, and then may reapply to hold the status for another six years. RPIs may apply for permanent residency after a period of ten years, ideally giving them two years to obtain it. They may then apply for citizenship after holding permanent residency for a period of three years. A less intense version of this process also applies to illegal immigrants who entered the US as children, also known as “DREAMers” after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Provisions for DREAMers stipulate that they may apply for RPI status in the same manner as adults, but that they need only wait five years to apply for permanent residency.

S.744 establishes a merit-based system allowing “foreign nationals to obtain Lawful Permanent Residence in the US by accumulating points mainly based on their skills, employment history, and educational credentials.” These skills and credentials include English language proficiency, degree of education and account for experience in higher-skill jobs. This selectivity could potentially advance America’s workforce. The merit-based system also awards points to young immigrants, especially those who are educated and proficient in English. Favoring this demographic would provide a much needed surge of workers, and as an educated population, they could obtain higher-paying jobs, ultimately increasing Social Security and Medicare funds.

The bill also addresses undocumented agricultural workers, allowing them to apply for a “blue card status” which they may hold for up to eight years. In order to obtain it, they must pass a series of background checks, and “must have performed at least 575 hours or 100 work days of agricultural employment during a two-year period”. Similar to green card provisions, blue card status would also provide agricultural workers the opportunity to apply for citizenship after holding blue card status for at least five years.

Enacting immigration reform benefits both Democrats and Republicans. Republicans could increase Homeland Security with strengthened border security and assist immigrant assimilation by allowing them a longer “trial period” through RPI status before becoming permanent residents. Obama, who championed the Hispanic vote in 2008 with 67 percent, has broken many of his initial promises to the community. He was unable to pass the DREAM Act and has failed to help illegal immigrants “get right with the law” in order to “get in line for citizenship.”[13] Passing immigration reform could help restore Hispanic support and put the Democratic Party in good standing for the 2016 election. Aside from partisan gains, introducing a path to citizenship for current illegal immigrants would promote increased family stability and elevate America’s workforce with an increased number of skilled foreign workers.

 

Lily Moseley

International Affairs ’17

 

References:

[1]President Obama: Working Together For Immigration Reform. The White House, 2009. Web. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/video/President-Obama-Working-Together-for-Immigration-Reform>.

[2]  “Party Platforms.” New York Times 2008. Web. <http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/president/issues/party-platforms/index.html>.

[3] Shear, Michael D. , and Ashley Parker. “Boehner Is Said to Back Change on Immigration.” New York Times[Washington D.C.] 1 January 2014, New York A1. Web. 5 Mar. 2014. <http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/president/issues/party-platforms/index.html>.

[4] Schumer, Senator Charles, Senator John McCain, Senator Richard Durbin, Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Robert Menendez, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Michael Bennet, and Senator Jeff Flake. Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform . 2013. Web. <http://www.flake.senate.gov/documents/immigration_reform.pdf>.

[5] Kaplan, Rebecca. “Immigration reform delay will be Obama’s fault, Boehner says.” CBS News (2014). Web. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/immigration-reform-delay-will-be-obamas-fault-boehner-says/>.

[6] Parker, Ashley. “Immigration Bill Would Aid Security, Napolitano Says.” New York Times [Washington D.C.] 23 April 2013, A14. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/us/politics/napolitano-says-immigration-bill-would-bolster-security.html>.

[7] Nixon, Ron. “Farm Group Seeks Immigration Changes.”New York Times [Washington D.C.] 10 February 2014, A14. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/us/politics/farm-bureau-report-finds-need-for-immigration-overhaul.html?_r=0>.

[8] “The Rule of Law: Legal Immigration.” Republican Platform: We Believe in America (2012). GOP.com. Web. <https://www.gop.com/2012-republican-platform_reforming/

[9] Plumer, Brad. “America’s staggering defense budget, in charts.” Washington Post 7 January 2013.<http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/07/everything-chuck-hagel-needs-to-know-about-the-defense-budget-in-charts/>.

[10] “A Guide to S.744: Understanding the 2013 Senate Immigration Bill.” Immigration Policy Center(2013). Immigration Policy Center. Web. <http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/special-reports/guide-s744-understanding-2013-senate-immigration-bill>.

[11] “THE FALLACY OF “ENFORCEMENT FIRST”: Immigration Enforcement Without Immigration Reform Has Been Failing for Decades.” American Immigration Council. Immigration Policy Center, n.d. Web. <http://immigrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/docs/borderenforcement.pdf>.

[12] Preston, Julia. “Number of Illegal Immigrants in U.S. May Be on Rise Again, Estimates Say.” New York Times 23 September 2013, A16. Web. 14 Mar. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/us/immigrant-population-shows-signs-of-growth-estimates-show.html?_r=0>.

[13] “Immigration.”The White House. Web. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/immigration>.

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