With immigration surging to the front of the national agenda, Democrats and Republicans alike are getting an early start on outlining new legislation. And their proposals already hint at some of the biggest fault lines in the coming debate.
On Wednesday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus offered up a set of baseline demands for any comprehensive immigration bill next year. For immigration activists, it was a familiar list: a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, more visas for highly skilled math and science workers, a guest worker program, tougher employer verification systems, a crackdown on border crime, and clarification that the 14th amendment grants citizenship to any person born in the United States. The idea is to bring together various interests — immigrants, agriculture, high tech companies, border hawks — behind a unified package that benefits each.
“A new America spoke out, and the message was clear,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said at a press conference introducing the white paper. “They told us the landscape has changed, and the first order of business should be comprehensive immigration reform.”
But even as many Republicans agree that reforming immigration is a top priority, a number are openly skeptical of full comprehensive reform, instead favoring a series of smaller bills with more modest changes. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), considered a key player by both sides, has suggested working out a solution for young undocumented immigrants who would have been affected by the DREAM Act before moving onto a broader bill.
Two retiring Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) took a try at exactly that on Wednesday, debuting their new ACHIEVE Act. But the bill, which would grant legal status to young undocumented immigrants who serve in the military or go to college, drew derision from pro- and anti-immigration activists alike.
Reformers called it an unacceptable half measure because it provided no new path to citizenship for affected immigrants. Only a small number of low-skilled workers are currently admitted to the US from per year, prompting criticism that it would create a permanent second class of residents who never achieve full legal status. Acknowledging these difficulties, Kyl suggested that immigrants might improve their chances of citizenship under the bill by marrying Americans.
“It’s tone deaf,” Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center For American Progress, told TPM. “They’re trying to extend an olive branch to the Latino community, but basically say you can stay in temporary status forever and never become a full part of America.”
Groups pushing for a harder line against immigration were not happy either because they oppose any policy that officially recognizes undocumented immigrants.
“It’s still amnesty,” Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said. “It’s just going to take a little bit longer than the DREAM Act.”
These debates are only going to grow more intense in the coming months given how central a path to citizenship is to comprehensive reform as well as the DREAM Act.
On the House side, Congress is set to vote Friday on the Republican STEM Jobs Act, a proposal by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) that would expand visas for foreign graduates of American universities who obtain degrees in math and science. But the White House and many immigration groups oppose that bill because it would offset the increase in immigration by eliminating the diversity visa program. That program randomly selects applicants from countries with low American immigration rates, many in Africa, to receive visas. They also are hoping to include high-skilled visas in comprehensive reform, which would likely be among the more popular measures, especially with business groups.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.