For the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S., the long-awaited immigration reform bill could provide a path to legal residency in the U.S. It has the approval of the Gang of Eight, the senators who have steered the bill through a tumultuous debate in the upper chamber, where it is expected to be approved in an upcoming vote.
When all is said and done, the bill is a shell of what proponents of immigration reform hoped it would be. Even so, it has garnered support from conservative Republicans like Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Even conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly has gotten in on the action, publicly throwing his support behind the bill in recent days.
The bill’s path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants is “such a long process. We are talking about from start to finish a 10- to 13-year process from start to finish, moving from unauthorized status to having a green card and be a lawful permanent resident. We are looking at over a decade where people would be in a kind of legal limbo. They have legal permission to be here but there are not fully entitled to recognition as immigrants have been for decades. It would take a long time,” said Cesar Cuauhtemoc Garcia Hernandez, professor of law at the University of Denver, to Mint Press News.
After a $30 billion border security amendment passed Monday, supporters hope the bill will have enough momentum to clear the Republican-controlled House. The additional spending on more than 20,000 additional border agents and stronger fencing could assuage Republican gripes about the porous border.
The Hill reports that the bill is now likely to pass with 70 votes in the Senate as early as late this week. Even if it clears the Senate, it could be dead on arrival once it hits the House floor, where it is expected to face stiff opposition from Republican leaders.
“It’s dead on arrival in the House,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an opponent of the bill, on a Fox News program. “The House is much closer to me.”
For proponents of immigration reform, the problem has been building for years.
“We have huge backlogs,” said Mary Giovagnoli, director of immigration policy at American Immigration Council, to Mint Press News. “Some cases where people have waited 20 years or more to be reunited with family.”
Even conservative pundits like Fox News host Bill O’Reilly have thrown their lot behind the immigration reform bill. His position is in keeping with a clear majority of Americans who support immigration reform and a path to citizenship for the millions currently lacking documentation.
The latest Pew Research poll shows that 71 percent believe there should be a way for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. to stay legally — if certain requirements are met.
“It is time for the USA to pass immigration reform,” O’Reilly said on his show last week. “It’s not perfect, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Some stalwart Republicans remain opposed to the bill, claiming that it grants broad protection to people inside the country illegally.
“We’ll just give amnesty to everybody here and we’ll pass a law and we promise it will fix things and we don’t really worry whether it does or not. And I can tell you it won’t. It won’t fix it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) from the Senate floor.
It’s a divisive issue within the Republican Party, with some seeing the immigration reform bill as a necessary bridge to the growing Hispanic voting bloc, which largely supports the Democratic party.
“The Republican Party has a lot to lose here,” O’Reilly said. “If it doesn’t compromise, many Hispanic voters will reject the GOP entirely, pretty much dooming the party in the future.”
So what are the key issues dividing the Republicans and Democrats? The issue of border security remains central to the current reform bill. Some worry that the bill places too much emphasis on the militarization of the U.S. Mexico border, which is already heavily fortified.
The Senate voted 62-27 on Monday for an amendment that would boost security spending by $30 billion. The Hill reported Monday that the amendment was intended to address GOP concerns about poor border policing.
Included in the amendment is authorization to increase the number of border patrol agents by 20,000 and to construct 700 miles of fencing along the border. These amendments are concerning for immigrant rights proponents, who see the additional policing as both ineffective and inhumane.
Several Democrats who voted against the amendment expressed concern that it would promote wasteful spending.
“I think we hear too much about spending money on one border rather than coming up with a comprehensive solution that takes pressure off that border,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said during a debate before the vote. “I am sure there are federal contracting firms high-fiving at the prospect of all of the spending demanded by some of our friends on the other side in this amendment.”
Similarly, some legal experts outside Capitol Hill have expressed opposition to the militarization of the border, which they say has worsened the humanitarian situation for migrants attempting perilous passage.
“I think one of the components of any piece of legislation that boosts the law enforcement presence along the border has to take into account the deeply problematic humanitarian impact of our border strategy, where we have documented proof of thousands of individuals pushed from urban areas into treacherous situations simply because they are trying to make better lives for themselves,” Garcia Hernandez said.
Previous efforts to militarize the border and create an unbreachable wall of security have failed. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano canceled a virtual border fence in January 2011 after Boeing Corp. failed to meet the standards needed to provide comprehensive security along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
The project came to a screeching halt after it became clear that the $7 billion project would not provide the closed-border protection system that legislators hoped would thwart attempts by drug traffickers and undocumented immigrants to enter the U.S.
The National Foundation for American Policy, a think tank based in Virginia, published a report earlier this year claiming that migrant deaths increased sharply in 2012 due to stricter border patrols that forced migrants to make a perilous trek to remote areas that are infrequently patrolled. NFAP reports that 477 immigrants died in 2012 along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2012, U.S. Border Patrol agents detained 356,000 undocumented immigrants at the border, compared with 1.5 million in 1999. Proponents claim that tough border enforcement has served as a deterrent, but overall immigration to the U.S. has also decreased due to poor economic conditions after the 2008 economic recession.
“We have tried infrared technology, long range cameras, the technology simply does not exist to do what the Senate wants it to do. We simply don’t have to fear people who are coming here to work, as the vast majority are doing. It’s not a concern that is abused in any historical reality,” Garcia Hernandez said.
Favoring the well-educated
Under the current bill, the process of legal integration becomes markedly less complicated for those immigrants with more education and English proficiency, marking a break from the traditional “family reunification” model that has been the cornerstone of the U.S. immigration system.
Prospective immigrants receive points for community service, civic engagement, English proficiency and clean criminal records. The process, legal experts claim, gives a heavy advantage those immigrants from more privileged economic backgrounds.
“There seems to be an emphasis on the employment-based option and a move away from the decades-long practice of trying to incorporate family unity into immigration law. For several decades the U.S. has allowed for some amount of family unification so that they can come. It’s a very human characteristic,” said Garcia Hernandez.
Low-skilled workers, who form the backbone of the U.S. economy, will continue to face a decade long wait to receive a green card or legal permission to remain in the U.S.
“The Senate bill is drastically moving away from that integral belief and the importance belief of coming together as families. It is tailored to the most highly skilled immigrants coming the U.S. There is nothing inherently wrong with creating options for highly skilled immigrants coming to the U.S. It ignores the basic reality that our economy relies upon low skill labor. We need people to pick tomatoes and clean hotels room. They have a right to as much dignity and as a good a quality of life,” said Garcia Hernandez.
For others, the proposal is balanced, having received input from both business and labor groups that support the proposal.
“I think that this is pretty nuanced. Both business and labor have exerted a lot of influence,” said Giovagnoli. “The best example is the W-visa. Labor was able to negotiate a visa that was more worker centric.”
It will have positive implications for the U.S. tax system as well, with studies showing that legalizing immigrants will bring in billions in lost tax revenue into the U.S. Treasury.
Granting citizenship to the 11 million without documentation after 5 years, a policy supported by a majority of U.S. citizens, would provide a boost of $1.1 trillion in economic growth, contribute $144 billion more in taxes, and add $618 billion to all U.S. incomes, according to a ThinkProgress study published earlier this year.