After weeks of battle, concession and recrimination, the U.S. Senate last week passed a sweeping immigration reform bill. The 68-32 vote offered a glimmer of bipartisanship and a major advance in the push for a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the country today.
Despite this unquestionable victory, the bill’s prospects are doubtful. In the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner has said he will not bring the bill up for a vote unless a majority of House Republicans support it, which does not seem to be the case. This may be mere saber-rattling, but for now there is little reason to think that the Senate’s immigration bill will be taken up on the House floor.
This does not mean all hope is lost. The House is considering a series of narrow immigration proposals that address some of the same issues raised in the Senate’s sweeping bill. These piecemeal measures are a poor way to tackle such a complex and divisive topic as immigration reform, but their passage could provide a means to negotiate a final bill in conference committee between the two chambers.
That is nonetheless a troubling scenario, because many Republican House members are highly skeptical of the Senate bill’s central feature: a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already here. Despite the nativist opposition, this provision is a moral and economic imperative, one that would remove millions of Americans from second-class status and help expand the legal labor market in ways that will strengthen the rule of law and reduce the federal deficit.
Under the Senate proposal, illegal immigrants could receive temporary legal status after paying back taxes and a $500 fine and passing a criminal background check. After 10 years, they would be eligible for permanent residency (i.e. a green card). After three more years, they could become full-fledged citizens.
In the meantime, billions of dollars would be flowing into extra security measures along the U.S.-Mexican border, including 20,000 extra Border Patrol agents (double the number there today) and 350 more miles of fencing (double the current amount). New technology would be introduced to clamp down on people who overstay guest visas. The federal government would impose a new system using the E-Verify database to prevent undocumented workers from being hired. Visas for high-skilled and temporary low-skilled workers would be expanded.
The Senate’s proposal creates a deft balance between many competing interests. Thus, Democratic senators inclined to oppose further militarization of the border supported the bill in the interest of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, while many Republican senators reluctantly supported a path to citizenship in interest of stronger border security and workplace enforcement.
How will this balance work in the House, where many of these planks are expected to be considered in individual bills? Most likely, it will not work, raising questions about whether a road to citizenship would make it out of the House. A failure to do so would be unacceptable. Immigration reform without this key provision is not reform at all.
for The Post Editorial Board