On Tuesday, the bipartisan group of Senators known as the “Gang of Eight” released a blueprint for a dramatic overhaul of the way America deals with both legal and illegal immigrants seeking citizenship. Considered long overdue, immigration reform strikes us here at home more than most political issues. At Swarthmore, many of us personally know someone who isn’t a citizen or permanent resident but is seeking to become one. Not to mention, there is general agreement across most ideological stripes that immigration, if done right, is good for the economy, as legal immigrants bring their skills to the American workforce. Legal immigration also increases tax revenue and thereby reduces government deficits.
While most agree that something needs to be done, we all know that’s where the agreement stops in Washington. The Gang of Eight plan, though, includes many elements that both sides have pushed for. These include the Republican goal of increased border security, the Democratic goal of a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and the common objective of reform of the immigration system for legal immigrants.
The pathway to citizenship is one of the central points of the plan. It involves a thirteen-year waiting period, as well as a requirement that unauthorized immigrants pay a $2000 fine and back taxes before obtaining a green card. In a victory for DREAM-ers, though, the plan provides an expedited, five-year path to citizenship for those who came here illegally as children.
On the legal immigration side, the bill would set up a new, merit-based system for awarding green cards to legal immigrants seeking to become permanent residents. Applicants with higher levels of education, longer times spent in the United States, and family ties would go to the front of the line for green cards.
Many in the business world, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have been pushing for immigration reform in order to bring high-skilled immigrants into the workforce. The bill includes a victory for them, too, by nearly doubling the number of visas issued annually to high-skilled immigrants. However, the bill also requires employers to verify that their employees have legal status through a photo-matching identification system, to be set up within five years. Businesses will no longer be able to evade social security taxes and healthcare regulations by hiring unauthorized immigrants.
The bill also allocates billions of dollars to the U.S.-Mexico border in order to beef up security. This is arguably the linchpin of the plan – a system that provides a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants cannot function if it does not stem the flow of illegal immigration by effectively sealing the holes in the border. Additionally, without this provision the bill’s chances of passing Congress are close to nil.
The Gang of Eight plan is a compromise plan, but one that should have appeal to both sides. Proponents note that only 14% of immigrants seeking green cards are successful; with the plan, they estimate that number will rise to nearly 50%. Furthermore, there is general recognition that immigration reform will help the economy. Even Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a Tea Party hero, has expressed support for (though has stopped short of endorsing) a pathway to citizenship, arguing that it is important for unauthorized immigrants to work and pay taxes, rather than simply using government resources and not giving back.
Conservatives are divided, though. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a newly-elected ally of Mr. Paul’s, opposes the plan on the grounds that it grants “amnesty” to those here illegally. The government should not reward lawbreaking, he argues. The country is divided on the pathway to citizenship, but the number of poll respondents in approval goes up when that pathway includes fines and wait times, as the Gang of Eight plan does.
Some oppose the pathway to citizenship on the grounds that a sudden burst of immigration may take away American jobs. There is legitimacy to this argument, particularly at a time when unemployment is so high. There is also resistance on the other side of the aisle. Some liberal Democrats, especially in the House, may resist the bill on the grounds that the pathway to citizenship in the Gang of Eight bill is too rocky.
Who’s in the Gang of Eight? The group includes four Democrats and four Republicans, including former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). McCain represents a border state where immigration is a big issue and tough laws cracking down on illegal immigrants have met federal challenges. A well-respected longtime Senator, McCain’s support is critical for the passage of the bill.
However, all eyes are on Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has become the Republican Party’s de facto point person on immigration. A Cuban-American, and himself a son of immigrants, Mr. Rubio is also seen as key to improving the Republican Party’s image among Hispanics. Recent electoral history shows that he has the capacity to do so. In the 2010 Senate Election in Florida, Mr. Rubio won the Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County, which hosts the largest population of Cuban-Americans in the country. By contrast, the Republican Senate candidate in 2012, Connie Mack, lost the county by a whopping 28 points.
Despite some speculation that Mr. Rubio would not endorse the Gang of Eight plan, the Senator took to the airwaves over the weekend to promote the legislation, which he claimed would be “a net positive for the country, now and in the future.” He also pushed back against the amnesty charge, arguing that the bill was nothing of the kind. “There will be consequences for having violated the law,” he said.
Mr. Rubio won some praise from across the aisle for his efforts in the Senate chambers. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a senior Democrat and member of the Gang of Eight, called him a “tremendous asset.”
The bipartisan makeup of the Gang of Eight, though, is no guarantee of the bill’s success. As was the case with the Democratic budget and gun control legislation, many Democrats facing reelection in 2014 may be leery about supporting the plan. However, the bill has robust, if not stellar, Republican support in the Senate, making its passage there likely. Furthermore, the endorsements of Mr. Rubio, Mr. McCain, and potentially Mr. Paul may bring a majority of the Republican caucus into the yes column.
The House of Representatives is a different story. Given that the ideological inclinations of House members are more extreme, passage in the Senate, even by a wide margin, is no guarantee that the House will follow suit. Ultra-conservative House members may not like the pathway to citizenship, while very liberal ones may find that path too rocky, and choose not to support the package.
There’s also the question of whether the bill will be passed as a whole or in pieces, as some have suggested. In pieces, most of the original provisions will not survive Congress. Republicans all along the ideological spectrum are certain to oppose the pathway to citizenship if not tied to increased border security. Border security is truly the keystone of the plan – both for practical purposes and political ones.
The bill stands a good chance of passage, assuming the Gang of Eight continues to push it and does not fold. Neither party, obviously, will be happy with everything in it, but the reform is comprehensive, and in theory the system it sets up will function by encouraging legal immigration, discouraging illegal, and dealing with the millions of unauthorized immigrants already in the country. We’ll discover the fate of the immigration bill over the next few weeks, but we’ll also rediscover how dysfunctional the current immigration system is.
“What we have in place today, the status quo, is horrible for America,” said Marco Rubio on Sunday. That’s something, at least, the parties can agree on.