April 17, 2013

The full Senate immigration reform bill was released this morning — a whopping 800 pages detailing the myriad changes this proposal will make if it’s passed into law. Marco Rubio, one of the bill’s chief advocates, continues to insist that this is “not amnesty,” but instead represents a responsible package of rules and reforms, with penalties and fines for unauthorized immigrants who want to become citizens.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the proposal’s enforcement “triggers” are what make this proposal a compromise. But that’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the actual compromise that’s been made here. It’s a political compromise, not a policy one.

The “trigger” process isn’t really the trigger some conservatives had hoped for. The Department of Homeland Security will receive billions more for border security and must hit certain border surveillance and apprehension targets within five years. If it doesn’t meet those metrics a border commission will be created.

The long and difficult part concerns the actual path to citizenship. It will be 10 years before any given immigrant is eligible for it. And then, immigrants will have to pay an additional set of fines, prove English knowledge, and go through another set of background checks.

It’s this two-tier process that’s really the substance of the compromise between Republicans and Democrats. The GOP wants two things out of immigration reform — a way to begin to repair relations with Latino voters, and more substantively, a guest-worker program that benefits their business allies. Likewise, Democrats want to build on their relationship with Latino voters — which has grown stronger in the Obama years — and offer substantive benefits in the form of citizenship and the legal permission to work in the United States.

This bill satisfies both desires. By building a path to citizenship, Democrats will expand their voting base by millions of people, potentially reshaping the political landscape. But by making that a long and difficult path, Republicans can rest assured that they won’t have to deal with this Democratic advantage, at least for another decade. In the short term, Republicans can reap the benefits of new legal workers, which will satisfy their constituents in the business community, and will be seen as responsive to Latino needs, which could help improve relations with that constituency. As for the immigrants themselves, permission to live and work in the United States is immensely valuable — they can better the lives of themselves and their families.

There are other elements in the bill to discuss, like expanded visas for high skilled workers, as well as concerns, like whether this will depress the wages of American workers. Those will be hashed out in the coming conversation. In the meantime, it’s an important to note that this is the compromise on offer: A series of short-term benefits for Republicans, traded for a set of long-term ones for Democrats.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.