Crossing party borders

Bipartisan effort toward immigration reform is not as hard as it seems

Among the many problems President Barack Obama promised to tackle during his State of the Union address, immigration reform was high on the list. Recently, a draft of Obama’s proposal has hit the press, and Republicans have immediately gone on the attack, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio proposing his own version. Partisan furor has obstructed sober thinking — surprise, surprise — and has made both parties overlook the significant similarities in their ideologies and approaches to the problem. Mr. Obama’s suggestions are actually in many ways in line with the suggestions of a bipartisan Congressional commission of eight senators. His proposal should be given serious thought if their plans do not come through.

A major Republican criticism of the Obama plan is that the path to citizenship it provides for illegal immigrants would be as quick if not quicker than the path legal immigrants must currently take. Rubio and a bipartisan group of eight senators have argued that illegal immigrants should be put at the back of the line for applications for a green card — granting permanent residency — behind all legal immigrants. Obama has attempted to address this problem: no illegal immigrant will be granted legal status for eight years or until every immigrant who has applied legally is given a visa. It is highly unlikely the backlogs will be cleared before eight years, however. So, in principle, Republican criticism is fair and reasonable; those who chose to come to our nation illegally should have to wait for those who chose to immigrate the right way.

But in practice this proposal faces a number of snags, most importantly the simple fact that waiting times for legal residency for Mexican-born immigrants are currently about 17 years long; adding almost 7 million immigrants to the end of this line means illegal immigrants seeking a green card could wait several decades. This is not practical, but the challenge is not insurmountable. Reforming the current system to drastically reduce waiting times — and paperwork — could make this proposition feasible.

Additionally, the bipartisan Congressional commission would delay making citizenship possible until border security has been augmented. This delay is unwise. It is unlikely that border security will ever be “secure” enough to satisfy hawkish Republicans, and preconditions virtually guarantee that paths to citizenship will never materialize under the bipartisan commission, forcing illegal immigrations into an uneasy legal limbo where they achieve legal residency but never full citizenship.

The Obama proposal would allow for illegal immigrants to apply for legal residency within eight years (unless backlogs magically clear before that) after passing criminal background tests, providing biometric information, paying fees, learning English and the history of the U.S. and its government, and paying back taxes. The path to citizenship would then be cleared. His proposal also includes a shortened path for immigrants who were brought here as children. A common-sense reform bill that would combine both of these approaches would include the requirements of the Obama proposal and then feed immigrants who had passed the requisite tests and paid the necessary fees into the back of the line for a green card, in the meantime granting them amnesty to work and pay taxes. It would also not make citizenship contingent on beefed-up border security. Such a proposal would allow a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that doesn’t disadvantage those who chose to come to the U.S. legally — but it would have to be combined with significant efforts to shorten the waiting time for becoming a legal resident.

Additionally, Obama has promised a reform that staples a green card to the diploma of any immigrant receiving a master’s or specialty degree in STEM fields at American universities. This proposal would help reduce the “brain drain” of immigrants who come the U.S., take advantage of our world-class educational institutions, and then are forced to return to their native country because the U.S. limit of 65,000 H1-B visas — those required to stay and work in a specialty field — is reached so early into the year. The U.S. should never force a highly qualified immigrant out of the country; our nation has thrived on pooling the world’s creative talents, and our universities attract some of the greatest minds out there. We should harness this potential, not force it to leech out of our borders. Fortunately, both Obama and the bipartisan commission are in agreement on this front.

The age-old question of border security and actively filtering out illegal immigrants does deserve our attention, and Obama’s vague proposals of increased homeland security and more judges to deal with the flow of immigrants does not do justice to the problem. His plan to require all employers to check the legal status of their workers within four years is reasonable, but his dismissal of concerns about Mexican border is too flippant. The bipartisan commission, however, should ensure that any plan they come up with to increase border security should be implemented in tandem with the other proposals, and not be a stumbling block to their execution.

Now is the time for immigration reform. Republicans are smarting from their defeat in the presidential election, in which they managed to garner just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. There is pressure on both sides of the aisle to craft a fair and reasonable proposal, and Obama is in agreement with House Republicans in many key areas. The points they disagree on should not hinder development of a comprehensive reform plan. The future of 11 million illegal immigrants depends on what the United States does now.

Russell Bogue’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

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