Congress has a chance to get it right

In the midst of self-manufactured congressional crisis over the funding of government, Democrats are maintaining the momentum for immigration reform by introducing this bill and inviting Republicans to the negotiating table. This latest proposal should remind members of both parties that Congress’s work will not be done this year until they pass legislation that is demanded by a majority of Americans; a solution that brings our outdated immigration system in line with our country’s economic needs and community values.

The Democrats’ bill combines two bipartisan measures: the House Homeland Security panel’s border security bill cosponsored by Republicans and Democrats and unanimously voted out of committee, and the broader bipartisan immigration reform legislation voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year.

This hybrid bill reflects the collective power of the communities along the U.S.-Mexico border and those of immigrants rights advocates to undo one of the worst provisions of the Senate-passed measure -- the so-called Corker-Hoeven amendment. During the Senate floor debate, the bill’s backers added 20,000 border patrol agents, billions of dollars worth of Black Hawk helicopters, drones and other surveillance technologies, because of pressure from conservatives intent on killing immigration reform and the path to citizenship. The Corker-Hoeven amendment also denied immigrants a decade’s worth of their past Social Security earnings.

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The folly of playing bad politics at the expense of sound policy was loudly protested by immigration reform advocates, and the House Democrats responded by excluding these extreme provisions from their proposal unveiled this week.

The bill, however, falls short in areas that are critical to families, the economy and the preservation of American values. We urge Congress to take advantage of a new round of immigration negotiations and try to get it right.

Our fundamental issue is that the Senate committee measure, which was the basis for the bill approved by the full Senate, includes a 10-to 13-year path to citizenship that is too long, extremely narrow, and especially difficult for low-income immigrants. As currently written, many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants will have trouble reaching the finish line to earned citizenship.

These immigrants would be required to pay taxes under Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, but they would be denied access to the programs paid for by their tax dollars. They would have to wait at least a decade to participate in Obamacare. Immigrant children would be denied food assistance.

Democrats and Republicans should ask themselves: Does the legislation include financial obstacles to citizenship? Does it deny earned benefits such as access to affordable health insurance and nutrition assistance for children? Does it deny due process and judicial review to those separated from families and thrust into deportation proceedings? Does it continue the suffering in our communities created by the current broken immigration system?

If the answer to any of these questions is, “Yes,” then they must try harder to produce a bill that is just and provides every one an equal shot at the ladder of success. By applying common sense to the task of legislating on immigration reform, Congress will produce a humane and effective system that promotes our economic prosperity and restores our nation’s moral values -- chief priorities that have become the casualties of recent political wars.

After shutting down the government and the recent stunning and shameless vote in the conservative-controlled House to cut $39 billion cut over 10 years from the nation’s hunger relief program -- mercilessly slamming the hungry who include young, low-paid military families, minimum wage workers, children, the elderly and disabled -- Congress has a chance to get it right.

Our country should not become one that refuses to feed the hungry, suspends government services, callously separates families, and increases deportations. Lawmakers must resist the temptation to go down the path of exclusionary policies that are mean-spirited attacks against immigrants and the poor.

With Congress’s approval ratings at a historic low, immigration reform provides one more chance for both parties to show the American people that indeed, they can legislate. The time is now for Congress to do the job they were elected for. Let’s get immigration reform done now and let’s get it right.

Hincapié is executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.