It seems everything’s coming up Milhouse for immigration reform this week. The Senate and White House are pushing fairly similar plans, conservative leaders like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are working overtime to charm the right, and even some hardline amnesty foes like Rep. Steve King (R-IA) sound like they’re coming around. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, at least three things, according to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who identified these “very tough issues” as the biggest obstacles to a deal.
“First, defining metrics that demonstrate the border is secure,” he told reporters on Thursday. “Second, defining exactly what the path to citizenship looks like and how it proceeds. [Third,] reaching an agreement between business and labor on a future flow program.”
Democrats are still optimistic about passing a bill, but if things do go sour, it’s almost certain one of these three issues is the culprit. Here’s why.
Tougher border security has always been the carrot immigration reformers dangle to try to get conservatives on board with a comprehensive bill and this year’s push is no exception. The standout feature of the Senate’s bipartisan plan is a series of border enforcement measures that have to be met in order to “trigger” the part of the bill that the right hates the most, namely a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The White House isn’t opposed to tightening the border as part of a deal per se, but President Obama and reform advocates are concerned that making it a precondition to applying for a green card could become an excuse to delay citizenship indefinitely for millions of newly legal immigrants. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the leading conservative voice in the bipartisan group, has warned he will walk away from the table if he thinks the final bill doesn’t keep the security threshold high enough.
The Senate’s plan also calls for a commission of Southwestern governors and other state officials to oversee the process. Members of the Senate group backing the idea say the ultimate decision on the trigger would be left to the Department of Homeland Security and that it’s unconstitutional to give the commission a veto, but conservatives could still press to expand their role in a final deal or give Congress a greater say in determining whether the border is secure. And then there’s the metrics used to define a secure border. Democrats want an easily measurable checklist, like number of agents deployed or whether or not they have enough drones in the air. But the vaguer the definition, the better chance immigration reform opponents have of slowing down the naturalization process in the future.
Pathway To Citizenship
Both the Senate and White House agree that any bill must allow undocumented immigrants to someday become citizens. But depending on how the legislation is crafted, that “someday” could mean “the near future” or “the future with flying cars.”
That’s because the current legal system is ill-equipped to process 11 million undocumented immigrants anytime soon. Many of them work in low-skill jobs, a category that offers up only 5,000 green cards a year, and the backlog for various other family and employment categories are already decades long as well.
The White House wants to overhaul the visa process to guarantee a “reasonable” timeframe for approval that doesn’t take decades. But Rubio has expressed skepticism of tinkering with the existing system and Democratic members of the working group told TPM they had yet to figure out a plan for how to address the green card backlogs.
One of the right’s biggest fears about a path to citizenship is that newly naturalized Hispanic immigrants will vote Democrat, so if they can’t stop a bill from passing at all, their next move is to try and make the process take as long as possible. Based on the early response from various conservative media figures to the Senate plan this week, that fight is going to get ugly fast.
Critics of immigration reform complain that Congress granted illegal immigrants citizenship in 1986 only to end up having the same debate today. Reformers agree, but they disagree on how to prevent it from happening again.
Business groups argue that the solution is a guest worker program that lets them bring in vastly more legal immigrants to work low-skill jobs like agriculture or meatpacking that they claim Americans don’t want to do. But labor unions are worried that employers will use imported labor to drive wages down and undercut organizing workers. They want stricter controls on how many legal immigrants are allowed in, ideally through a commission that determines which sectors of the economy actually have shortages.
This debate isn’t just a theoretical problem. Schumer cited it on Thursday as the leading factor in killing President Bush’s 2007 reform effort. That Senate bill included a guest worker program but it was later amended to slash the amount of workers allowed into the country. The result pleased no one — pro-labor Democrats still voted against it and business groups were less motivated to pressure border hawk Republicans into voting yes.
This year, the major unions and the Chamber of Commerce are trying to negotiate a solution to avoid scuttling a second bill. But they’ve yet to reach an agreement and if either group decides to back out, the whole thing becomes much harder to get past Congress.
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.