These are differences that foreshadow some thorny but important legislative negotiations. The hope is that these differences will broaden the debate rather than entrench positions and fuel the partisan fire. Immigration is as complex as it is contentious, and the related issues deserve more meaningful debate than the federal government has given it in the past 10 years.
Border enforcement is one such issue. Transnational criminal organizations — which are far more interested in the drugs, money, and guns they traffic than in the immigrants they smuggle — have become dramatically more sophisticated over the past decade. They are using state-of-the-art technology to move contraband undetected through ports of entry as well as through isolated stretches of desert. Meanwhile, the political debate has largely ignored the issue of drugs and guns and instead has focused on unauthorized immigration. And the policy solutions have devolved into a bidding war on how high we can build a border fence.
Congress and the White House must adopt a different mentality as they negotiate the details of immigration reform legislation. In particular, they must resist the temptation to view reform only through the lens of enforcement. Consider the Senators’ proposal, which calls for the creation of enforcement triggers that delay a permanent status for the unauthorized population until all of the proposal’s immigration-enforcement measures are “complete.” This sort of benchmarking is fraught with danger because the standards for deciding when a measure is “complete” are ambiguous.
If the Senators’ proposal offers clear objectives that can be satisfied in a reasonable amount of time, then perhaps there is a chance that triggers would work. But, history is not on their side. A new report from the American Immigration Lawyers Association points out that current immigration-enforcement measures already satisfy the enforcement benchmarks proposed in the immigration-reform legislation of 2006, 2007, and 2010.
What is the rationale for moving the goal posts even further away? If those enforcement metrics have not solved our immigration problem, then perhaps Congress is focused on the wrong metrics. Perhaps, as many of us in the policy debate have argued, it isn’t possible to enforce our way out of our immigration problems. In any case, tying our efforts to legally integrate unauthorized immigrants into communities where most have lived for more than 10 years, to a vague or subjective definition of a “secure” border is a recipe for failure. It makes no sense to leave unauthorized immigrants in legal limbo as Congress embarks on an unattainable crusade to attain an ever changing definition of “security.”
Despite these challenges, the proposals put forth by the president and the Senators amount to a display of bipartisanship that is extraordinary in the polarized political climate of Capitol Hill. Prominent Democrats and Republicans agree that the time has come for a thorough revamping of the U.S. immigration system, and that this revamping should include a workable legalization program for unauthorized immigrants, as well as reforms to make the United States more competitive in the global battle for talent.
Clearly, the devil is in the details, and there are thousands of details that remain to be negotiated and agreed upon. This will be no easy task. But if Congress and the White House are willing to exert the political will and engage in an honest, sensible debate, then the creation of a uniquely American, 21st century immigration system that not only improves our security and economy, but is reflective of our values as a nation, is within reach.
Johnson is the executive director of the American Immigration Council.