Is Immigration Reform Finally Happening?

The devil is in the details, but comprehensive legislation is closer than ever

president obama immigration reform
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President Obama delivers a speech on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.
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After decades of political inaction, comprehensive immigration legislation gained bipartisan momentum this week – signaling that the time may finally be ripe for reform. One reason for the change is clear: Following Latino and Asian-American voters' sweeping rejection of the Republican platform in November, many in the GOP feel they have no choice but to moderate their hardline stances.

On Monday, a bipartisan Senate working group unveiled a guiding framework that includes an eventual path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., alongside measures to expand enforcement at the border and in the workplace. Outlining his own proposed overhaul in a speech yesterday in Las Vegas, President Obama described a similar set of principles, hailing a rare alignment in which "Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together." But as always, the devil is in the details.

Neither the Senate group nor Obama laid out a straightforward track to citizenship, instead requiring applicants to undergo a background check and pay back taxes and penalties before being granted provisional status, then ushered "to the back of the line." The senators' blueprint involved an additional obstacle, making a path to citizenship "contingent upon our success in securing our borders . . . to prevent, detect, and apprehend every unauthorized entrant," with a "commission comprised of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border" empowered to determine when such security has been achieved. Not only does this grant an unknown scope of influence to hardliners like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who is intent on derailing anything perceived as "amnesty," but it also fails to clarify when enough is enough.

As Suzy Khimm of the Washington Post highlights, despite failing to pass Bush's 2007 immigration bill, we've actually far surpassed its border security targets, with heavily increased numbers of patrol agents, vehicle barriers, fencing, radar and camera towers and drones. All this, when net migration from Mexico is currently zero.

While Obama's proposed path to citizenship doesn't hinge on an unreasonable notion of border security, he too prioritizes militant enforcement over the real work of helping millions emerge from the shadows. This keeps in line with first-term policies framed as successes in his speech: record deportations of 400,000 people per year, and an enormous immigration enforcement budget – $18 billion in 2012 – that eclipsed what was spent on all other major federal law enforcement agencies combined.

While both reform proposals addressed expanding visas to skill-based and family-based applicants, only Obama's treated bi-national same-sex couples as families "by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner." When asked about the omission, working group member Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) said that same-sex couples were "not of paramount importance" to immigration reform. With at least 28,500 same-sex couples in the U.S. in which only one partner is a citizen, that would depend on who you asked. LGBT immigrant rights groups widely condemned the exclusion, noting that the Congressional Hispanic Caucus listed the rights of same-sex couples as a top priority for reform.

The Senate committee's framework represents a major shift in its bipartisan embrace of a route to citizenship. But its conservative architects have a long view on immigration policy that many of their House counterparts can't afford to. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) are veteran advocates of reform, while Senator Marco Rubio's (R-Florida) presumed 2016 presidential bid will depend on broader demographic support. Comprehensive legislation will be a tough sell among House Republicans – but at least things are moving in the right direction.