Is last week’s release of an immigration reform plan the beginning of a resolution or just the beginning of further frustration?
The elements for consensus are in place, with the 844-page immigration bill striking a tough but pragmatic balance. Reform would be humane and prudent, bringing an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. out of the shadows and into the legal, income-tax paying workforce. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, one of the eight who crafted the bill, is right to position himself at the forefront of this issue.
But opponents in Congress are already moving to defeat it with delays and amendments that would gut or cripple it. The same fate befell a similar immigration reform effort in 2007. Immigration concerns after Sept. 11 delayed President George W. Bush’s immigration reform efforts for years, ultimately dooming them. The revelation that last week’s Boston bombings were carried out by two foreign-born men who immigrated legally could be used by opponents in similar fashion, but such tactics should not be tolerated.
Despite some right-wing resistance, initial reaction to the sweeping bill has seemed largely favorable, with many influential politicians and commentators of both parties praising it, even while acknowledging that its compromises leave almost everyone partly dissatisfied.
There is a lot to like about the proposal. It would allow people here illegally to apply quickly for a new temporary legal status that would allow them to work and travel. After 10 years, they could apply for permanent residency, and for citizenship after 13. But they would have to pay $1,000 in penalties as well as back taxes.
An important but often-overlooked component of this new path to citizenship is the realization of the so-called Dream Act: The bill would allow people who came illegally as young children to become documented Americans in an expedited process. The wait would be five years for permanent residency and eight years for citizenship. This effort to decouple children’s fates from the long-ago decisions of their parents is one of the plan’s most morally salient components.
The bill also calls for spending billions of dollars to further secure the U.S.-Mexican border, and to expand the guest-worker program to bring in foreigners for jobs where there are too few willing American workers. All employers would eventually be required to confirm workers’ legal status using a federal database.
The merits of some of these measures are questionable. While enforcement of porous sections of the Mexican border can improve, pouring more than $4 billion into tighter enforcement is unlikely to be money well spent. There is also considerable debate about the effects of the bill’s expanded worker visa programs, with unions wanting fewer visas and business interests wanting more. The bill’s shift to fewer green cards for relatives of citizens to more for skilled workers may leave many families unable to reunite, while benefiting the overall economy.
But the balance the bill strikes between these and many other competing interests is impressive. Detractors on the right growl that the path to citizenship represents “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, but that claim is false. They would have to pay fines and back taxes, and undergo background checks.
As President Barack Obama said, the compromise ensures that “no one will get everything they wanted, including me.” But it would do tremendous good. A year ago, such a bipartisan immigration bill would have been unthinkable. Now, there’s one on paper, a promising start toward true reform.
for The Post Editorial Board