Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Senate's Immigration Reform Proposal

On Monday, a bipartisan group of senators issued a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. News reports characterized it as a major breakthrough, although it was really only a matter of time; the real battle will be in the House. Now, instead of proposing his own plan, President Obama will get behind the Senate's proposal.

Both the Senate's plan and President Obama's plan technically provide unauthorized immigrants with a path to citizenship. What's clear from both proposals is that the path to citizenship is going to be a long path. The path will be long because unauthorized immigrants will have to go to the back of the line, behind the other prospective immigrants who have applied legally and are waiting patiently for their opportunity to become citizens. So we're talking about a wait time that could easily be more than a decade.

NBC news pointed out an interesting distinction between the two proposals that may have a serious impact on whether unauthorized immigrants can actually obtain citizenship. According to NBC news, under the Senate plan, "a pathway to citizenship [is] contingent on border security. That means a coalition of governors and law enforcement officials must certify that the borders are secure and THEN the government can move forward on a path to citizenship."

Certify that the borders are "secure"? There are a couple of problems with this proposal. First, no effort to curb unauthorized immigration will ever curb it completely, in the same way that you could never end crime or stop terrorism. All you can do is take steps to minimize it. So it's unclear how exactly such a proposal would work in practice. This ambiguity leads to the second problem. If governors have to sign off on the security of the border, then you run the risk of injecting political calculations into a decision that should be grounded in objective criteria.

It's too early to conclude that a final bill would include this provision. Even if it does, the devil is in the details and the term "secure" may be defined in the proposed legislation by objective criteria. But this citizenship qualifier does illustrate that getting a bill through Congress is going to require some interesting compromises. Whether these compromises can be implemented in a way that is workable remains an open question.

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