Immigration reform may be one of the most important, most mentioned and least executed policy ideas that Washington has kicked around for decades. It fact, the idea has languished in a bin of burned proposals for at least 26 years since the last successful stab at reform rolled out of the Capitol. But thanks to the defeat of so many Republicans last November, a new reform bill with legs has miraculously arisen.
The bipartisan bill introduced by the dedicated Gang of Eight senators last week, though subsumed by news coverage of the tragic ending of the Boston Marathon, appears to be the real deal. It encompasses the myriad hot-button obstacles and objections that critics might raise, and nails down realistic, detailed formulas, trigger points and conditions to meet each concern.
Take the scorching issue of how to handle the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States. The proposal mandates completion of hugely expensive, step-by-step strategies to further improve border security and prevent a new rush of undocumented immigrants across the border, all as a pre-condition for allowing currently undocumented immigrants to even begin to qualify for, and then apply for, a permanent visa. And only then could they begin the equally arduous, multi-stage, condition-laden, 13-year path to citizenship.
Critics contend that is too long and too hard a process for handling undocumented immigrants. Yet it would allow current undocumented immigrants with a good background to receive interim legal "Resident Provisional Immigrant Status," which would allow them to remain in the U.S. without the threat of deportation hanging over their heads while they begin seeking enough qualification "points" (for education and work skills) under the new system to ultimately earn citizenship.
Similarly, the bill would allow a two-tier guest-worker program, one for farm workers and another for low-wage employees, who would be allowed to go back-and-forth across the border. It also would expand the current annual cap (from 65,000 to 110,000, and eventually to 180,000) on H-1B special-skills employees. Employers, however, would have to comply with a new federal photo-ID program, to be installed within five years, to verify the legal status of all employees.
The bill would essentially implement the Dream Act, which Republicans have witlessly blocked, to allow a clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children by their parents, and who have grown up in the United States. As under the Dream Act, conditions would attach for a good record and educational and workplace achievement.
More broadly, the proposed bill would install a number of long-sought reforms in other areas of immigration. It would significantly reduce the issuance of "family chain" visas, which allow a number of relatives to receive permanent visas simply because of their relationships. In turn, it would sharply redirect the current focus of legal immigration toward applicants with higher educational records and special job skills, including engineering, science, and computer programming. For a change, foreign graduate students who take their degrees in the U.S. or abroad would be given a priority focus, as well.
In other areas, the bill would clean-up the severe backlog of applications for permanent visas, known as green cards, and it would eliminate the annual random lottery of 55,000 visas, which have been used to work off the backlog of visa applicants in various areas.
Though critics can be expected, the scope and prerequisites of the proposed reform bill, taken together, make an excellent starting point for effective and comprehensive immigration reform. The senators who have spent months behind the scenes hammering out a bipartisan bill surely reflect the Senate's most visible divisions.
Republican Senators Mark Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for example, come from the far right; Democrats Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois represent their left-wing counterparts. Republicans Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona are as close to the ground on the southern border as anyone. Democrats Robert Mendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado equally represent urban and agricultural areas.
Their work provides not just the ground for full debate. It beckons, at last, a reform that sweeps away a quarter of a century of leaky patchwork measures that have failed to produce cohesive immigration standards. For sensible economic and growth planning and humane control of the nation's future immigration patterns, the nation needs better. Such reform can't begin too soon.