Congress Comes Out of Hiding on Immigration

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A marginalized group emerged from the shadows today to assert that they indeed have a voice, and a future, in American society. We speak, of course, of members of Congress. After years of scurrying for political cover, a brave handful of senators held a daylight, weekday news conference in Washington to present -- in writing -- a surprisingly detailed outline for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.

This is new. What’s more, the group of senators backing the outline is thoroughly bipartisan, with Republicans Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio declaring their participation. Rubio, in particular, is working to sell reform to skeptics on the right. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer hailed the group’s proposals as “a major breakthrough.” McCain called the legislative path “difficult but achievable.”

The proposals are promising. The plan calls for stricter border enforcement, backed by new technology and personnel. Once an as-yet unspecified level of border security is established, a two-step process of legalization would begin for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., who would be subject to an interim legal status before being eligible for citizenship. Fines and back taxes would have to be paid. Immigrants who entered the country as children would have an easier path to citizenship than others, as would agricultural workers.

In addition, visas would be increased for highly skilled workers, and a new employment verification system would impose “stiff fines and criminal penalties for egregious offenses” by employers who hire undocumented labor.

With President Barack Obama scheduled to speak on immigration tomorrow in Las Vegas, the sense of momentum in Washington is real. Business interests and labor unions, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, are generally supportive. Even in the House of Representatives, where Republican hard-liners have been the biggest obstacle to immigration reform, change is in the air.

A small, bipartisan group of House members has been working for years to construct a comprehensive immigration reform capable of becoming law. Republican Representative John Carter of Texas revealed this week for the first time that he is a member of the group, which includes California Democrat Zoe Lofgren. (Carter’s disclosure is significant; the issue is so sensitive among conservatives, and the House group is so secretive, that members have watermarked documents to ensure confidentiality.) Meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner confirmed last week that the members “basically have an agreement.”

Pitfalls remain. Enforcement will never be perfect -- and so might never satisfy the concerns of conservatives. Similarly, objections to “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants are bound to resurface. The pathway to citizenship, the Senate outline says, is “contingent upon our success in securing our borders and addressing visa overstays.” And how will we know when we have realized that unspecified level of border security? According to the senatorial outline, that determination would be made by border-state political leaders, who must be relied on to resist partisan and populist temptations.

Despite such concerns, the change in the political environment is genuine. Trey Gowdy, a second-term Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, is known as a hawk on illegal immigration. Yet he told a newspaper in his home state of South Carolina that he wants a system that reflects “the humanity that I think defines us as a people, and the respect for the rule of law that defines us as a republic.” If that’s the standard Congress maintains for immigration reform, millions will be on a path to citizenship, and the nation will be on the high road to success.

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