Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Immigration Reform Guidelines: Will They Help Structure The Debate?

Analysis

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Mexican American Immigrants Protest
Mexican-American, Mexican and other immigrants attend a protest and rally in Arizona.

Talk of immigration reform is percolating on Capitol Hill, with the Republican Party’s Election Day trouncing among Latino voters giving them an incentive to come to the table.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has gotten in on the process by a releasing a set of principles that should guide immigration reform. A look down the list shows what a complex, messy process a broad immigration overhaul could be. It involves some cherished progressive priorities (every member of the CHC is a Democrat), as well as some proposals more in line with conservative immigration goals.

Requires the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to register with the federal government, submit to fingerprinting and a criminal background check, learn English and American civics, and pay taxes to contribute fully and legally to our economy and earn a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.


America’s substantial undocumented population is a perennial issue at the heart of the immigration debate. Democrats scoffed at Mitt Romney’s endorsement of a “self-deportation” principle -- essentially, making life miserable enough for undocumented immigrants that they voluntarily leave -- while Republicans accuse Democrats of supporting a broad amnesty that would absolve law breakers and invite more illegal immigration.Still, there seems to be some bipartisan will for getting things done. A staffer for Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in a radio interview, said it is time to tell immigrants to “come out of the shadows.” But it must be “on our terms and not theirs,” Graham said, saying immigrants seeking legal status must have clean criminal records and commit themselves to paying taxes, passing an English proficiency exam and holding a steady job. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ guidelines embrace those same general contours.Protects the unity and sanctity of the family, including the families of bi-national, same-sex couples, by reducing the family backlogs and keeping spouses, parents and children together.Our immigration system is structured largely around family unity -- as opposed to, say, Canada’s system, which is more focused on filling labor gaps -- but advocates say the process of bringing family members to the United States is still overly bureaucratic and time-consuming. Immigrant spouses can wait years before being allowed to settle in the United States.The mention of same-sex couples is also worth watching. Because the Defense of Marriage Act bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions, same-sex binational couples don’t get immigration benefits. In other words, an American man who mentions a Spanish-born national in Massachusetts cannot sponsor his husband for a green card. There have been some signs that the Obama administration is willing to show leniency on this issue.Attracts the best and the brightest investors, innovators and skilled professionals, including those in science, technology, engineering and math [or STEM] studies, to help strengthen our economy, create jobs and build a brighter future for all Americans.This would seem to be an easy one: ensure that immigrants who come to America for an advanced education are able to find work here, rather than forcing them to take their degrees abroad and compete with American workers. Members of both parties have endorsed the principle.But the trade-offs required have so far proved to be insurmountable. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has introduced a bill that would provide thousands of STEM visas, but it would do so by dissolving a visa lottery for unskilled workers. Democrats, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, oppose the legislation.Builds on the extraordinary success of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA] program and incorporates Dreamers -- those who were brought to the U.S. at a young age and are Americans but for a piece of paper -- into the mainstream of life in the United States through a path to citizenship so that America benefits from their scholastic achievements, military service and pursuit of their dreams.

The highest-profile immigration fight of Obama’s first term concerned the Dream Act, a bill that would open a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. The bill made it out of the House in 2010 but crumbled in the Senate despite vocal support from the president.Determined to show some progress despite the Dream Act’s failure, the Obama administration rolled out the DACA program, which allows Dreamers to apply for immunity from deportation and work permits. Republicans denounced the program as an amnesty and said Obama had abused his presidential power by acting without Congress.Senator John McCain and two outgoing colleagues have already released a watered-down version of the Dream Act, the Achieve Act, that would offer permanent legal status instead of citizenship. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has dismissed the bill as a half-measure.Includes a balanced, workable solution for the agriculture industry that ensures agricultural workers have a route to citizenship and employers have the workers and American agriculture continues to lead in our global economy.Businesses in farm states have complained about a lack of willing seasonal laborers, noting that native Americans are often reluctant to take on the physically demanding work. The need for workers often clashes against the desire to tighten up immigration laws: In Georgia, where the state legislature passed a tough new law penalizing employers who knowingly hired illegal workers, farmers complained about crops rotting in the field.In Kansas, lawmakers and the business community admitted the role undocumented laborers play in grueling, less-desired jobs. The legislature considered a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to find work in the state’s feedlots and meat processing plants, often located in sparsely populated parts of the state with low employment rates.Ends the exploitation of U.S. and immigrant workers by providing sufficient, safe and legal avenues for foreign workers to fill legitimate gaps in our workforce, with full labor rights, protection from discrimination and a reasonable path to permanency that lifts up wages and working conditions for both native and foreign-born workers and their families.But unions have long been wary of guest worker programs, worrying that they could drive down wages and create more competition for American workers. Note that the language here mentions “both native and foreign-born workers and their families,” anticipating those concerns.Ensures smart and reasonable enforcement that protects our borders and fosters commerce by targeting serious criminals and real threats at our northern and southern borders and promotes the safe and legitimate movement of people and goods at our ports of entry and which are essential to our economy.The phrase “secure the border” has become a reliable part of any Republican candidate’s immigration platform, but Obama has done his part to fortify the country’s southern rim. He continued a buildup of U.S. Border Patrol agents initiated under President George W. Bush, albeit reluctantly and in the face of Congressional pressure.The key words in this point are “smart and reasonable enforcement” and “targeting serious criminals.” The Obama administration has consistently said that it is committed to focusing limited enforcement resources on criminal immigrants, rather than law-abiding immigrants who have built up family ties and assimilated into their communities. A new set of enforcement guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security codified those priorities, instructing Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents to use discretion in choosing which deportation cases to pursue or, in some cases, suspend.Establishes a workable employment verification system that prevents unlawful employment and rewards employers and employees who play by the rules, while protecting Americans’ right to work and their privacy.The E-Verify program, which requires businesses to verify prospective employees are legally able to work in the United States, is already in place in more than a dozen states. Republicans are pushing to make the program mandatory throughout the country, but critics warn that it is often inaccurate and intrusive.Renews our commitment to citizenship, to ensure all workers pay their fair share of taxes, fully integrate into our way of life and bear the same responsibilities as all Americans and reaffirms our shared belief that the Citizenship Clause of the Constitution is a fundamental freedom that must be preserved.Remember “anchor babies"? Some Republican lawmakers -- Sen. Graham among them -- believe the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship for anyone born on U.S. soil is an anachronism. Graham and others have said Congress should have more power to regulate the process.

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