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Talking Points: A Necessary First Step

The immigration compromise reached last week is a flawed deal, but it represents a critical first step towards fixing our shattered immigration system.

The immigration compromise reached last week is a flawed deal, an attempt to “bridge the chasm between brittle hard-liners who want the country to stop absorbing so many outsiders, and those who want to give immigrants — illegal ones, too — a fair and realistic shot at the American dream.” Yet it represents a critical first step towards fixing our shattered immigration system. Most importantly, it offers a solution for most of the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country today — an opportunity to come out of the shadows, to live and work without fear, and eventually become citizens. This process of earned citizenship is supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans (80 percent in the latest CNN poll), and is a key component of any sustainable and comprehensive immigration plan. Nevertheless, there are serious drawbacks in the compromise, and those must be addressed.

  • The new deal provides a needed path to citizenship, but that path is long and expensive. As predicted, the hard-line anti-immigrant advocates have already stamped the deal “amnesty, amnesty, and amnesty.” But as Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said this week, “for some people, the only thing that would not be amnesty is mass deportation.” This compromise offers legalization to undocumented immigrants only after a long and arduous road that can take up to 13 years. “To get to citizenship, eligible immigrants “would have to pay a total of $5,000 in fines and $2,000 in processing fees. Heads of household would have to return to their home country and reenter legally, and all family members would have to pass background checks.” They also have to “wait until certain ‘trigger’ conditions on border security are met and immigration backlogs are cleared.” After four years, immigrants who want to renew their Z visas for four more years “would have to pass the English proficiency test given to those applying for citizenship.” Many of these hurdles are unnecessary and burdensome, but a “winding and expensive path to citizenship is still a path.”
  • The immigration compromise includes some important border security provisions. “Hiring 18,000 new border patrol agents; putting in place 70 ground-based radar camera towers along the southern border; and providing the resources necessary to detain up to 27,500 aliens per day on an annual basis and process applicants for Z visa status.” These are important steps toward plugging our porous border, but recent history also shows “that border enforcement efforts only have a chance at success if pressure is taken off the undocumented flow across our borders through new well-regulated migration paths.” Overall, the Center for American Progress’s Cassandra Butts writes, “the border enforcement provisions in the bipartisan House STRIVE Act are preferable to those included in the legislation under debate today.”
  • The compromise fails to put forward a sensible temporary worker program and breaks up families. The compromise “fails most dismally in its temporary worker program,” a “large, churning pool” of workers who are prohibited from laying down roots in the United States. The plan “allows 400,000 low-skilled workers to come to America for three two-year terms, but requires them to go home for a year in between.”  As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said yesterday, “This is impractical, both for the workers and for the American employers who need a stable and reliable work force.” Immigrants who come under a worker program — “who play by its rules, work hard and gain promotions, respect and job skills — should be allowed to stay if they wish. But this deal closes the door.” The deal also includes a dramatic change to the legal immigration system by eliminating visa categories which allow U.S. citizens to petition for their families. “The proposal would eliminate several categories of family-based immigration, and it would distribute green cards according to a point-based system that shifts the preference toward those who have education and skills but not necessarily roots in this country.” Eun Sook Lee, executive director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, added, “If we take out the future family program” that allows sponsorship, she said, “we will be creating another problem. People will continue to come without documentation. People want to be with their family members. It’s something you can’t kill.”