Last week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed a broad immigration reform bill in a strongly bipartisan 13-5 vote. As the bill moves to the full Senate, where it seems likely to have the votes necessary to pass, a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives is reportedly negotiating their own immigration reform bill. However, some of the key Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are suggesting they might take another track: they agree that we need certain reforms to our immigration laws, they say, but they don’t think one big “comprehensive” bill is the way to go. They’d rather address the various problems in our current immigration system piece by piece in separate bills, rather than with one big bill (the Senate’s bill is more than 800 pages).
I’ve heard a few different reasons cited for this preference for a piecemeal strategy. Some simply seem to have an aversion to the term “comprehensive” or to big bills in general: the Senate bill is not as long as the 906 pages of the “Obamacare” health insurance reform bill loathed by many conservatives, but not by much. But the length of a bill is really not the best measure of its merit: legislation that is going to fix a complex problem will usually take a lot of words. Take the welfare reform legislation of 1996, which was a pillar of the Republican “Contract of America”: it was 1104 pages as introduced in the House of Representatives.
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, provides a helpful analogy to explain why “comprehensive” is not a bad word:
Let’s take the word out of policy and politics and into a discussion with your mechanic. The two of you are standing in his shop next to your broken car. It’s obvious that it won’t run and the mechanic explains why: out of gas; dead battery; flat tire; lost key. You are concerned about the cost but really need the car to get to work every day. “If I fixed only one or two of the items on the list, which would you recommend?” The mechanic replies: “If you fix just two, your car will still be broken. For it to run right, you need to fix them all.” “Well,” you suggest, “suppose we start with a gallon of gas. That’s the cheapest and easiest. We’ll deal with the others next year.”
Finally you make a bold decision and tell him to fix them all at the same time. The goal is not to make your car perfect but to get the car running so you can go to work every morning.
Our current immigration system really is as this analogy describes: fixing just one of the many broken elements really won’t work, for both practical and political reasons. We could spend billions to secure our border—in fact, we already have—but it would be far less expensive to achieve secure borders if we were to fix our visa system, making it much easier for would-be emigrants to come in legally when there are jobs available, while also creating a mandatory, functional workplace authorization system (with serious fines for those who hire someone without authorization) to ensure that only those with legal status could find a job. Very few people would enter illegally—risking their lives to cross a desert—if there were options for lawful migration and if they realized that migrating unlawfully to the U.S. would not mean a job and economic opportunities.
However, employers will push back hard against a mandatory employment authorization system—which for certain industries would mean laying off millions of hard-working, well-trained employees, potentially shutting down their businesses in some cases, and negatively affecting the entire U.S. economy—unless they could be assured that their existing employees were going to be able to apply for work authorization simultaneously and that there would be a functional employer-sponsored visa system to work with going forward. If those elements are included, as they are in the Senate’s bill, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and most other industry groups are strongly supportive.
There are also political realities to consider, especially given that any legislation must be approved by both chambers of Congress, and the American people have elected one party to the majority in the U.S. Senate and the other to lead the U.S. House of Representatives. For some legislators (particularly Democrats, who control the Senate), the most vital element of immigration reform is a legalization program with an ultimate, earned path to citizenship; for other legislators (particularly Republicans, who control the House of Representatives), stronger border security is the most important element, or a more open, market-sensitive legal migration system. A compromise bill that includes all of these elements is not going to make anyone entirely happy, but—as the 13-5 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee demonstrated last week—it can attract the votes of both Republicans and Democrats, each of whom gets what they wanted, even if it means swallowing some elements with which they’re not thrilled.
I am confident that a majority of the Republicans in the House of Representatives could vote for a strong border security bill, or a bill increasing the number of visas for highly-skilled immigrants, or perhaps an agricultural guest worker program. In fact, the House has passed some of those bills already—but they never become law, because the Democratic-controlled Senate refuses to pass these bills in piecemeal fashion. And I am very skeptical that Republicans in the House will ever pass a legalization-only bill: for those wary of being accused by a Republican primary election challenger (who apparently doesn’t understand the definition of the word) of voting for “amnesty,” it is much easier to say that they voted for a strong border security bill—and swallowed a legalization program that was contingent on border security metrics being met—than to vote for a legalization bill on its own. The same is true for the Democrats in the Senate, who are very unlikely to pass a border security and enforcement-only-focused bill. They’ll vote for those provisions only if they can tell their primary voters that they accepted billions in border security spending in order to get legalization. “Politics is the art of the possible,” as Otto Van Bismarck quipped, and a comprehensive approach is really the only way that substantial reforms are going to get done. Plus, here’s another political dynamic to consider: recent polling (by a Republican polling firm) found that 72% of Republicans (and 68% of all voters) want “a lot of changes” or “a complete overhaul” to the immigration system; only a minority of voters think that just a few pieces need to be tweaked.
A final reason that some prefer a piecemeal approach is that they simply do not trust the federal government: they want border security in place before legalization occurs, afraid that otherwise the border security mandate will be ignored. This isn’t necessarily a baseless concern: after all, President Reagan’s 1986 immigration reform, for all the good that it did, did not stop illegal immigration because it took very little time for the federal government to begin ignoring (or only very selectively enforcing) the employment authorization rules that the law put into place, which should have removed the incentive for future unlawful migration. That’s because Reagan’s bill was not comprehensive enough: it did not provide significant new opportunities for legal migration, so employers (who have strong lobbies) felt they had no choice but to hire unauthorized workers.
The framers of the Senate bill—particularly border state Senators like John McCain and Jeff Flake—are skeptical of the federal government’s commitment to border security, too. That’s why they have structured their comprehensive bill in a sequential way: first, the Department of Homeland Security must release a thorough border security plan. Then, the undocumented would be eligible to apply for provisional (not permanent) legal status and work authorization—so that a mandatory employment authorization system can also begin operation. The border security plan must be fully operational—meeting specific metrics (included within the legislation) for border surveillance and apprehensions, including the construction of a fence—before the Department of Homeland Security grants permanent legal status to the undocumented who would be granted provisional legal status under the primary legalization provision. Several other goals would also have to be met before these undocumented immigrants could earn their green cards, including a fully functional, mandatory employment authorization system, a fully operational system to verify that those on temporary visas have departed the country when required, and the processing of everyone currently waiting to enter the U.S. and be granted permanent resident status through family reunification petitions. Essentially, the step-by-step dynamic favored by many House Republicans is included within a comprehensive bill.
At World Relief, we’ve long advocated for a broad, comprehensive reform to our immigration laws. If the piece-by-piece plan would work—and ultimately be reconciled with the Senate’s comprehensive approach, such that the President signs a comprehensive reform into place—that would be fine with me: the most important thing is not process, but that the many dysfunctions of our current immigration system are each fixed. It seems to me, however, that a piece-by-piece plan is highly unlikely to work, both for political and pragmatic reasons, which is why I’m joining many others in praying and advocating for broad reforms like those the Senate seems to be pursuing.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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