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What could have been: An America with immigration reform

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
The Dome of the U.S. Capitol as seen on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

Imagine this: It’s July of 2007, and after exhausting negotiations, the biggest piece of immigration legislation in decades — the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 — has passed the Senate and House with bipartisan votes of 63-37 and 252-180, respectively and is on its way to President George W. Bush’s desk for signature. Of course, that legislative achievement never happened.

Instead, the 2007 bill died amid a confluence of hard-right opposition to legalization, union opposition to new guest worker programs, and the decision of the new Congressional Democratic majority not to prioritize the issue, despite support from a Republican president and many of his allies in Congress.

One Republican Senator described the sweeping 2007 bill as “trading the past for the future.” And indeed, the bill was extremely generous to those who had immigrated illegally, including broad legalization provisions. At the same time, it would have created a flexible system of guest worker programs designed to match the employment needs of the country, implemented mandatory employer immigration checks, and enhanced border and visa security.

But let’s just imagine a bit longer if members of the 110th Congress had managed to thread the needle on immigration reform in 2007 — What would have that outcome meant for the future of America, some 15 years later?

  • There’s never a President Trump – Of course, candidate Donald Trump was attractive to his supporters for many reasons, but it is hard to imagine him sweeping to the 2016 Republican nomination over rivals like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio if our immigration system had been operating for almost a decade under the 2007 reforms. In 2016, the dysfunction of an antiquated immigration system, which allowed our asylum system to be overrun and our employment visa system to be completely detached from economic conditions, gave candidate Trump the issue he needed to differentiate himself from the pack and win over GOP base voters.
  • Dreamers would be Americans – Providing legal status to those brought here as children has been a bipartisan issue for two decades but has always been thwarted by members of both sides leveraging the issue for other immigration goals. Many Dreamers are now approaching middle age, with strong roots in their communities and American citizen children, yet still lack permanent status and have unsettled futures.
  • Our economy would have been stronger and more competitive – One of the best aspects of the 2007 proposal was the creation of temporary worker programs that could be calibrated to the economic needs of the day. Under that system, during the economic recessions of 2008-09 and 2020, worker spots would have been heavily restricted. But during times of labor shortages, like we see now, employers would have access to pools of talented temporary workers with the skills they need.
  • Our borders would be more secure – Since the collapse of the 2007 legislation, Congress has continued to pour resources into our border agencies, including border fencing and additional Border Patrol personnel. But even with these investments, we continue to face significant challenges at the border because the underlying laws that manage the border are out of date and completely unsuited to deal with the waves of asylum claimants surrendering themselves at ports of entry.
  • Our counter-terrorism security would have been enhanced – The 2007 bill would have fostered a decade of security enhancements, including completion of the long-delayed biometric entry-exit system and better vetting of international travelers. Instead, in lieu of legislative mandates, when the Trump administration arrived, we had the chaos of the ‘Muslim ban.’   

Alternative history is always speculative, but the failure of Congress to turn bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform into an actual legislative achievement in 2007 should be considered one of the biggest missed opportunities in American history.

Fifteen years later, our borders are more chaotic, our economy is hindered by outdated and insufficient work visa policies, and our country is more divided than ever on immigration.

Let’s hope that the next window for bipartisan immigration reform opens soon and that Congress finally achieves what should have happened in 2007.

C. Stewart Verdery Jr. served as Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration and as general counsel to the Senate Republican Whip. He is the CEO of Monument Advocacy and a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration.

Tags American competitiveness Bipartisan legislation border security Counter-terrorism Donald Trump Dreamers George W. Bush immigration policy Immigration reform Immigration to the United States political compromise

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