An immigration bill passed the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee last week, a first step toward revamping the nation’s immigration laws. Three Republicans joined 10 Democrats to move the legislation to the full Senate. The vote reflects a willingness that is becoming rare in Congress to make compromises on major policy issues.
The last major push to overhaul immigration law foundered in 2007. Opponents claimed, among other objections, that it amounted to “amnesty” to prescribe a path for people who are in the country illegally to legalize their residency and eventually qualify for citizenship. The measure that passed the Senate panel sets such a path. That it remains a key provision is indicative not only of sharply altered political calculations since November but also of the bipartisan cooperation and trade-offs necessary to achieve comprehensive reform.
The bill would create a 13-year path to citizenship with eligibility criteria for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in the country before 2011. It would devote additional resources to border security and enforcement in the Southwest and at airports and seaports. It would be mandatory for employers to check, through the E-Verify system, the immigration status of potential employees. In addition, the bill would loosen visa restrictions to allow into the country more high-skilled workers and create a visa program for low-skilled labor.
Without question, the Senate panel faced tough choices to keep the coalition for reform from unraveling, dropping reasonable yet contentious proposals such as sponsoring permanent residency for foreign partners of gay citizens. Still, the closely negotiated bill bears the flaws of give and take. For example, there is little reason to exclude from the legalization process those who arrived after 2011 except to mollify critics of legalization. Also, after massive spending increases on security enforcement on the southern border the past decade, it will be hard to justify even more spending when illegal crossings from Mexico have diminished.
Fixing the immigration framework remains a highly contentious issue. As such, any legislation is likely to face tough sledding on the Senate floor and in the even more fractious House. The hope is, the focus and bipartisanship in the Senate committee bring the necessary breakthrough.