Immigration proposal: border security, visa overhaul, then normalization

A bipartisan group of Senators have already released the conceptual structure of an immigration reform compromise, if not the legislative language.  This is getting plenty of press today, and it will probably take most of the attention in politics this week for both its own substance and how it plays in both parties and among voters.  The compromise provides normalization for most of the illegal immigrants in the US, but puts certification of border security and a visa-program overhaul first — as well as all of those applying legally for immigration as of the bill’s passage:

Four Basic Legislative Pillars:

1. Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required;

2. Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families;

3. Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers; and,

4. Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers.

Since Pillar One will generate the most controversy, especially among conservatives, let’s take a look at the specifics.  The pledge includes a number of specific promises about adding resources to border security — long overdue, and held up by insistence on inclusion in a comprehensive bill.  The specifics of a path to citizenship come later in the section:

 Our legislation will require the completion of an entry-exit system that tracks whether all persons entering the United States on temporary visas via airports and seaports have left the country as required by law.

That should be one of the key components.  The broken visa system, along with lax security at the border, were both cited by the 9/11 Commission in its report of dangerous gaps in American security — and that was in 2005.  Almost eight years later, we’re just now getting around to addressing both.

 We recognize that Americans living along the Southwest border are key to recognizing and understanding when the border is truly secure. Our legislation will create a commission comprised of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border to monitor the progress of securing our border and to make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measures outlined in the legislation are completed.

This improves on earlier proposals that gave the certification duty to the federal government.  It also provides border hawks in those states a very good argument for winning those gubernatorial and AG elections that will ensure that certification isn’t just a rubber stamp for DHS and the White House.

 While these security measures are being put into place, we will simultaneously require those who came or remained in the United States without our permission to register with the government. This will include passing a background check and settling their debt to society by paying a fine and back taxes, in order to earn probationary legal status, which will allow them to live and work legally in the United States. Individuals with a serious criminal background or others who pose a threat to our national security will be ineligible for legal status and subject to deportation. Illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes face immediate deportation.

 We will demonstrate our commitment to securing our borders and combating visa overstays by requiring our proposed enforcement measures be complete before any immigrant on probationary status can earn a green card.

 Current restrictions preventing non-immigrants from accessing federal public benefits will also apply to lawful probationary immigrants.

This is another concession to conservatives, who have argued that an “amnesty” program would explode entitlement spending.

 Once the enforcement measures have been completed, individuals with probationary legal status will be 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, in order to earn the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residency. Those individuals who successfully complete these requirements can eventually earn a green card.

I assume those who don’t meet those prerequisites will get deported, but we will have to see what the legislative language says to know for sure.

 Individuals who are present without lawful status – not including people within the two categories identified below – will only receive a green card after every individual who is already waiting in line for a green card, at the time this legislation is enacted, has received their green card. Our purpose is to ensure that no one who has violated America’s immigration laws will receive preferential treatment as they relate to those individuals who have complied with the law.

This is another concession to conservatives, and really to reality.  It’s the only way to incentivize legal immigration in the future, as opposed to sneaking in and hoping for the best.

 Our legislation also recognizes that the circumstances and the conduct of people without lawful status are not the same, and cannot be addressed identically.

For instance, individuals who entered the United States as minor children did not knowingly choose to violate any immigration laws. Consequently, under our proposal these individuals will not face the same requirements as other individuals in order to earn a path to citizenship.

Similarly, individuals who have been working without legal status in the United States agricultural industry have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America’s food supply while earning subsistence wages. Due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, agricultural workers who commit to the long term stability of our nation’s agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume. These individuals will earn a path to citizenship through a different process under our new agricultural worker program.

Assuming that the border and visa problems are finally resolved, this makes sense as a compromise between the two factions of the immigration issue.  The idea that 11 million people are going to “self-deport” is fantasy, and unless we want to have a permanent underclass of people who are never properly vetted and then integrated, we will have to find a path to normalization.  The Wall Street Journal cautiously agrees:

Tricky issues have yet to be resolved, including how to assess whether the border-security benchmarks have been met, how to alleviate the backlog of people waiting for legal visas and how many people would be admitted under the new temporary-worker program. …

But many in Congress, particularly Republicans, worry that after legislation is passed, there will be a fresh wave of illegal crossings as the economy rebounds. To combat that, the framework proposes increased technology, infrastructure and personnel, including more unmanned aerial vehicles, to apprehend unauthorized entrants. It calls for stronger prohibitions against racial profiling and more training of border patrol agents. …

A Rubio aide said Mr. Rubio would like to see ‘operational control of the border,’ a standard some advocates fear would be both hard to define and never be met. … Once the enforcement measures are complete, people with probationary status could earn permanent legal residence, which can lead to citizenship, if they pay taxes, learn English and meet other requirements. They wouldn’t be able to earn a green card until all those waiting on the day the legislation is passed get theirs. That meets a GOP demand that people who came to the U.S. illegally don’t earn special treatment.

As far as the politics of Rubio’s intervention in this issue goes, a source on Capitol Hill writes to me that it put “a conservative in the room making sure our principles will be in whatever gets passed — they can’t cut their own deal.”  Obama was going to press forward on immigration reform in the Senate for sure, and probably hoped to further damage the GOP with Latinos, especially if House Republicans had to balk at an all-Democrat (or all-Democrat plus John McCain) deal.  Rubio’s influence on the package in insisting on a real border-first approach and a process that doesn’t allow normalization to occur ahead of existing applications for immigration “gets our principles out in front of the President” and stops Obama from “outflanking” Republicans on immigration.

This is an improvement over the 2006-7 proposals that ended up going nowhere.  It’s hardly perfect, but in a government with split control for at least the next two years (four, from the GOP’s perspective), it’s a good compromise to get us past this issue and finally start addressing border security to the satisfaction of the states involved, rather than the federal government.