Immigration reform: Five places where Obama and the Senate agree

January 29, 2013

There's little in President Obama's immigration-reform proposal that isn't, or couldn't be, in the Senate's proposal. There's little in the Senate's proposal that isn't, or couldn't be, in Obama's proposal.


(Marvin Joseph-Washington Post)

Tuesday in Las Vegas, Obama touted the emerging consensus. "Yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators announced their principles for comprehensive immigration reform, which are very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years," he said.

That consensus has five parts. The first is that U.S. borders need to be secure, or as secure we can make them. But much of the work on that has been done. As Wonkblog's Suzy Khimm points out, the measures of border security from the 2007 immigration bill have largely been achieved.

But border security can't do everything. Even after sinking billions and billions into securing our borders, our "operational control" of the border -- defined as our ability to quickly respond to any disturbance -- is only in the range of 57 percent. That's less evidence that we haven't done enough than it is evidence that you can only do so much without simply having members of the National Guard link arms across all 1,967 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The second piece of the consensus is that employers need to be checking the immigration status of employees. This sounds easy but is, in practice, very difficult. "The border security issue is, at this point, 90 to 95 percent solved," says Frank Sharry, head of the pro-immigrant group America's Voice. "Employer verification is, at this point, less than 10 percent solved." Which system employers have to use, and the program is enforced and overseen, will be a key issue in the upcoming debate.

The third point of agreement is that there needs to be a path to citizenship. "And when we say the path to citizenship is a bottom-line demand we mean an accessible, viable path to citizenship," says a Senate aide involved in the bipartisan Gang of 8 talks. That means no legalized limbo, in which undocumented immigrants are transitioned into a permanent second-class status. It also means that the crux of this debate is likely to be over how long that path to citizenship takes, and which enforcement measures need to be met before it's triggered. 

Crucially, Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio has emerged as a major Republican supporter of a real path to citizenship, and he's been mounting an exhaustive campaign to sell the idea in the conservative media. Nor is he alone. "The U.S. should not want a permanent class of residents who can never be citizens and thus have less incentive to adapt to U.S. cultural mores, speak English, or move out of segregated ethnic enclaves," wrote the Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

The core of the deal here is that to qualify for the path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants must fulfill a tough set of criteria. In the Senate plan, they're required  "to go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants, pass an additional background check, pay taxes, learn English and civics, demonstrate a history of work in the United States, and current employment, among other requirements." Obama's language is similar. Those applying for a green card -- the first step towards citizenship -- start at the back of the line, and then "must pay their taxes, pass additional criminal background and national security checks, register for Selective Service (where applicable), pay additional fees and penalties, and learn English and U.S. civics."

The fourth element is the need for a sustainable immigration system going forward. It's also the least well-defined. There's broad agreement that President Ronald Reagan's reform "failed to set up a process for future legal immigration to meet the needs of fast-moving labor markets." Both the senators and Obama promise in their proposals to do better this time.

But neither is terribly specific on how they'll do better. For instance, neither framework specifies how many immigrants it expects to let through in the coming years. Obama's framework "eliminates the backlog for employment-sponsored immigration by eliminating annual country caps and adding additional visas to the system. Outdated legal immigration programs are reformed to meet current and future demands by exempting certain categories from annual visa limitations." The Senate's framework would "allow employers to hire immigrants if it can be demonstrated that they were unsuccessful in recruiting an American to fill an open position and the hiring of an immigrant will not displace American workers."

This can be a particularly thorny issue. One of the toughest questions in the 2007 reforms concerned the creation of a large guest worker program, which unions -- and then-Sen. Barack Obama -- opposed. The Senate's framework appears to create such a program but offers few details. Obama's current framework doesn't make mention of such a program, but his May 2011 white paper did. In that set of recommendations, the Obama administration embraced the AgJOBS bill for agricultural workers and talked of "establishing a new, small, and targeted temporary worker program for lower skilled, non-seasonal, non-agricultural workers to be hired when no American worker is available."

The consensus over a framework, in other words, has a long way to go before it becomes a consensus over a bill. Major issues such as guest-worker programs are unresolved. Smaller, but potentially very controversial issues -- such as whether long-term, same-sex partners qualify for family reunification programs, as they do in Obama's plan -- haven't even been debated.

In his speech, Obama's confidence was tempered by the memory of past failures. "At this moment, it looks like there’s a genuine desire to get this done soon, and that’s very encouraging," he said. "But this time, action must follow."

That note of caution is warranted. In 2007, President George W. Bush, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Sen. John McCain all endorsed an immigration-reform bill. "You don’t get that match-up very often," the president joked. The proposal failed anyway.

That failure was bipartisan. "Mr. Bush placed telephone calls to lawmakers throughout the morning," the New York Times reported, "but members of his party abandoned him in droves, with only 12 of the 49 Senate Republicans sticking by him on the key procedural vote that determined the bill’s fate. Nearly one-third of Senate Democrats voted, in effect, to block action on the bill."

The question is whether 2013's reforms can succeed where 2007's failed. The key revolt in 2007 happened in the conservative media. “What listeners of the conservative talk radio media were hearing, in large part, was that the legislation itself was little more than an ‘amnesty bill’ for illegal immigrants,” concluded a study from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Media.

There's been some thawing in the conservative media, in part because many key conservative radio and television hosts have concluded that immigration is largely responsible for the party's ongoing troubles among Latino voters.

That's the political stick Obama intends to wield to try to force immigration reform over the finish line. It was no accident that the president gave his speech before an enthusiastic crowd in Nevada, a state that's becoming bluer and bluer as the population turns browner and browner. "If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion," he said to cheers, "I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away."

If that happens, the president'  bill will almost certainly fail. But after that, the White House will send Congress a bill that immigration groups love,and that Republicans would do themselves terrible damage by destroying. Republicans already worry that Democrats want to keep immigration alive as an issue going into the 2014 and then the 2016 elections, and that if this effort goes sour, they will end up with the blame.

That's the fifth key consensus underlying this effort at immigration reform: That the Republican Party can't win majorities if it can't get more than 27 percent of the Latino vote, and that passing some kind of immigration reform is necessary if the GOP wants to improve its image among Hispanics.

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Ezra Klein · January 29, 2013