Republican immigration principles: A step toward reform

The good news is that the glass is half full.

Thursday’s release of the Republican "immigration Reform Principles" is promising because it shows that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the House leadership are finally thinking about positive solutions to fix America’s broken immigration system. 

It’s also very encouraging that while the GOP plainly stated they will not go to conference with the Senate’s bill, their reform principles largely mirror the Senate’s, including keeping the borders secure, preventing bad actor employers from hiring undocumented workers, providing a temporary worker program, overhauling the visa system, and providing DREAMERs with a roadmap to legalization.  Most importantly, GOP talking points no longer include “self-deportation”, a mean-spirited policy proposal championed by anti-immigrant restrictionists.

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Even when it comes to providing a pathway to legal status for the country’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants the Republicans seem to be signaling their intent to roll up their sleeves and get to work on an immigration overhaul that will move America forward.  True, the GOP principles include a seemingly firm declaration that there will be “no special path to citizenship”.  But as someone who makes his living parsing through the convoluted immigration law in search of immigrants’ rights, I interpret placement of the word “special” after the word “No” as a statement that a “path to citizenship” –even if it’s not “special—might be acceptable to the GOP as they work with immigration reform advocates to find common ground.  This is critical because it suggests the Republicans are seriously interested solving the Nation’s immigration problems. 

In fact, when you think about it, the GOP’s “no special path to citizenship” assertion may not be all that different from the immigration bill passed by the Senate last year.  The Senate’s plan requires that undocumented immigrants spend a minimum of 10 years as “Registered Provisional Immigrants” before they can apply for green cards.  Once they get their green cards—which can only happen after certain enforcement triggers are met and the immigration backlogs have cleared—the new legal  permanent residents must wait another three years to apply for U.S. citizenship under the existing law. In other words, the Senate immigration bill does not include any “special” pathway to citizenship either.

If the GOP is proposing to provide undocumented immigrants with legal immigration status which will protect them from deportation and give them a chance to apply for green card status through the normal legal channels that might not necessarily be a deal killer either.  Of course for that to work the legal immigration system will have to be revamped to provide realistic attainable legal avenues for people to qualify.  Under current law most foreign nationals who don’t have a close US citizen family member or highly skilled job have no access to a green card.

Of more concern is the GOP’s statement that “none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented”.  It’s not clear what they mean by this.  But if the GOP is going to insist on unreachable triggers what they are essentially saying is, “We’re not interested in immigration reform, comprehensive, piecemeal, or otherwise any time soon.” 

Hopefully the Republicans will soon offer concrete, detailed legislation which fills in the gaps and answers the serious questions raised by the Statement of Principles released Thursday evening.  Yet it’s very encouraging that they are finally recognizing our Nation desperately needs immigration reform; that we cannot continue to tear apart American families because of a broken immigration system; and that a robust and healthy immigration policy will add billions of dollars to America's economy and create good jobs for US workers. If the House Republicans are serious about immigration reform—and I believe that they are—then they’ve given the country a Statement of Principles that can be worked with and improved upon.

In meantime one thing is clear.  The House Republicans are late to the party.  It’s time they get moving on real legislation! 

Leopold is a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Associaiton.

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