Immigration reform: Congress, Obama, and public are not so far apart

Both the bipartisan Senate plan and President Obama's proposal on immigration reform – which he's expected to mention in his State of the Union address tonight – show how Republican and Democrats aren’t as far apart on policy as politics might have us believe.

Susan Walsh/AP/file
President Obama reaches out to shake hands after giving his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill on Jan. 24, 2012. Mr. Obama will center his address tonight on job creation and economic growth, also touching on immigration reform. Op-ed contributor Mary Giolvagnoli says the Obama and bipartisan Senate plans on immigration reform 'chart a way to bring lawmakers together – particularly on the pivotal issue of citizenship.'

In spite of some disagreement among lawmakers on the best path forward, momentum for US immigration reform continues to grow – and is moving in one clear direction. A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a framework for reform a few weeks ago, and shortly thereafter President Obama announced his own policy push on immigration, which he is expected to touch upon again in his State of the Union address Tuesday. In the House, a range of ideas are being floated, but a bipartisan bill is expected to emerge soon.

Both the Senate and White House proposals are remarkable for what they share, particularly with respect to providing a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. And despite some important differences, they are even more remarkable for establishing a united front on what kinds of solutions are seen as reasonable and politically viable in the coming debate over immigration reform.

In short, the two plans, particularly the Senate proposal, show how policymakers aren’t as far apart on policy as politics might have us believe. And they chart a way to bring lawmakers together – particularly on the pivotal issue of citizenship.

House Republican leaders are already struggling to find a way to distinguish themselves from these proposals without sounding too extreme, but their tentative forays into a “no citizenship for the undocumented” proposal are likely to place them outside the mainstream of the debate – and public opinion.

At the core of both the White House and Senate proposals is a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States today. Both proposals also include border reform, updating the legal immigration system and reducing current backlogs, and expanding employment-based visas to include more green cards for high-skilled workers.

There are differences, as well. For example, Mr. Obama’s framework makes more overtures to progressives, including support for equal treatment of same-sex couples for immigration purposes, curbing border patrol abuses involving racial profiling, and immigration court reform.

The Senate proposal is more centrist, making the path to citizenship conditional on first completing enhanced border-security measures and requiring legalization applicants to go to the “back of the line” before obtaining their lawful permanent resident status – or eventual citizenship. Because extraordinary backlogs in visa processing currently exist, most people expect the Senate to authorize additional visas to reduce the backlog. Nonetheless, legalization applicants would likely wait many years to receive their “green cards.” Obama’s plan calls for a more straightforward path to citizenship with fewer strings attached.

The Senate proposal also explicitly calls for a reformed and expanded temporary-worker program flexible enough to meet the demand for jobs when the economy is good and to scale back accordingly when it is not.

In short, the Senate proposal seeks to balance often conflicting interests and concerns – border security vs. legalization, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants vs. fairness to those who went through legal channels, and the need for immigrant skills and labor across the whole economic spectrum vs. concern for worker protections and increasing opportunities for native-born workers.

The Senate plan aims to earn buy-in from both Republicans and Democrats on issues such as border enforcement, visa reforms, and temporary workers to garner broader support for full reform and legalization.

The strong support for legalization that includes eventual citizenship, however, is emerging as the issue that some House Republicans balk on, as evidenced by the first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on immigration in the 113th Congress. Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia called citizenship an “extreme” solution for the 11 million. It’s a sentiment echoed by Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, who argues that he is the voice of immigration reform for House Republicans, and that those who come to the country illegally don’t merit citizenship.

Opponents to offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship argue that doing so rewards lawbreaking and encourages a new wave of illegal immigration. They argue that the 1986 legalization program, in which roughly 3 million undocumented immigrants received legal status, failed to end illegal immigration, as its supporters promised.

What is often left out of that critique, however, is that the 1986 law did not address the question of future immigration flow – the management of permanent and temporary immigration to the United States. When jobs or family are located within the US, but when no visas are available, new enforcement measures alone will not stop illegal immigration.

Thus, those opposed to citizenship are missing the larger point of immigration reform and aren’t necessarily reflecting the views of all Republicans. For instance, Darryl Issa (R) of California, who is generally a hardliner on immigration matters, has endorsed a path to citizenship. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who has stayed mum on the Senate proposal, endorsed citizenship for "DREAMers" and the children of the undocumented last week.

In other words, House Republicans are in disarray on the issue, and it is likely to get more confusing soon when a long rumored House bipartisan bill that has been in the works for several years is unveiled. That bill is widely expected to endorse a path to citizenship – as well it should, given that poll after poll shows the majority of the public supports citizenship for the undocumented.

In fact, the possible problems created by leaving 11 million people in a permanent limbo status – one in which they can never fully participate in American democracy by voting or becoming US citizens – goes to the core of American values. Once the public accepted that we must build a new immigration system that allows unauthorized immigrants to transition to a lawful permanent resident status, the debate over citizenship was already a non-starter.

Americans won’t accept an in-between category that creates second-class status for 11 million of their neighbors. It’s just not in our nature to think that such positions are a fair or practical basis for building healthy and productive communities.

It’s likely that the trial balloons denouncing a path to citizenship sent aloft by House Republicans last week are exactly that – efforts to see just how much the electorate cares and how far Republicans will have to move to appear “in the center.”

But based on competing proposals from the Senate, Obama, and even from within the House, it will become clear in the coming weeks that opposition to citizenship really is off the political map entirely.

Mary Giovagnoli is the director of the Immigration Policy Center.

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