THERE’S A LONG way to go, and a universe of details to be decided, before Congress overhauls the nation’s broken immigration system. Still, it qualified as big news Monday that a bipartisan group of eight senators, working over the last several weeks, was able to fashion a skeletal framework agreement, including the granting of legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the county. It’s an important starting point, but only a starting point, for what should become serious negotiations between the White House and lawmakers.
The four Republican and four Democratic senators arrived at their declaration of principles in part by fudging the particulars. The senators agreed that most illegal immigrants should qualify for probationary legal status. That would allow them to work and stay in the United States before becoming eligible to apply for a green card and, ultimately, citizenship.
But whether that process would take five years, 20 years or more was left fuzzy. The agreement sketches a process in which many of today’s illegal immigrants would be dead — or at least retired — by the time they qualified for citizenship. As paths to citizenship go, that’s too long.
Part of the problem is that the agreement sends illegal immigrants to the back of the visa “line”: None could receive a green card, which grants legal permanent residence, until “every individual” already waiting for one gets theirs. That backlog, particularly for Indians, Chinese and Filipinos with relatives in the United States, now extends more than a decade for many. And a green card itself sets the clock ticking for more years until citizenship is a possibility.
Years more could be added to the wait by a provision authorizing a commission of border-state officials — governors, attorneys general and others — to certify that immigration security measures are adequate. If that means empowering Republicans who are forever moving the border-security goalposts, it’s a recipe for paralysis.
Similarly, the senators agreed, reasonably, that a system should be established to ensure that immigrants who enter the country on visas of limited duration actually depart when their visas expire. (Currently, two in five do not.) But building and enforcing any such system will be difficult and, inevitably, flawed. Will those who oppose reform be allowed to use those flaws to block progress toward citizenship?
Among those who accept that 11 million undocumented residents are here to stay, there is broad agreement that the path to citizenship should include screening for criminal records, paying fines and back taxes and establishing a means for employers to verify the legal status of job applicants. Many in Congress also understand that any reform package must establish a workable mechanism to satisfy the market’s future demand for an adequate number of low-skilled workers and ensure visas for foreigners who receive degrees in science, technology and engineering from U.S. universities.
It remains an open question whether that consensus extends to the House majority. Top House Republicans, including Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), were noncommittal about the senators’ declaration. If the fledgling bipartisan plan provides a jolt of momentum toward bona fide negotiations, it will have been a success.