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Honor bipartisan legacy of John McCain with immigration reform

How I imagine McCain is reacting to Trump right now.

Republican senator, presidential candidate, and war hero John McCain died on Saturday after a battle with brain cancer. Strangely enough, his death occurred nine years to the day and was caused by the same disease as his friend and colleague Ted Kennedy. While different in many respects, McCain and Kennedy were models of the bipartisan cooperation possible when statesmen put national priorities above political calculations.

One of the best known results of that bipartisan cooperation was their ultimately unsuccessful joint effort to comprehensively reform the United States immigration system. As an act of honor to their legacy, Congress should come together to pass legislation based on their outline. Originally introduced in the Senate in 2005, the comprehensive immigration reform bill that has become known as simply the McCain Kennedy bill brought together three primary components that have since been the basic pillars of all serious bipartisan immigration reform proposals in Congress.

First, the McCain Kennedy bill focused on improving border security and enforcement. Although the details varied between their initial proposal and subsequent incarnations, all insisted that the federal government has a sovereign obligation to secure its borders, a responsibility which, especially during those years, was miserably failing. The proposal also focused resources on verifying that temporary visitors to our country depart at the appropriate time, as nearly half of immigrants in the United States have illegally entered legally and then overstayed their visas.

{mosads}Second, the proposal focused on facilitating legal immigration. By increasing the number of employer sponsored visas, both permanent and temporary, the bill would have dramatically reduced the incentives to immigrate illegally while meeting the needs of the labor market. The bill also proposed expediting the process by which family members living abroad are reunited with their American citizen relatives, a process that can last decades and often prompts the overstaying of visas.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, McCain and Kennedy insisted that immigrants living in the country unlawfully must make amends for their violation of law through fines and then be given the chance to earn permanent legal status by meeting various requirements, including passing English and civics tests. This provision notably did not apply to those with serious criminal infractions, who would face deportation.

While some critics lambasted the bill as amnesty, McCain rejected that description, arguing that it upheld the rule of law, requiring immigrants living in the country illegally to pay fines, back taxes, and processing fees, pass criminal background checks, and meet employment and English requirements to earn permanent legal status and eventual citizenship.

In fact, McCain argued that the status quo was a “de facto” amnesty, as millions of immigrants were illegally working and living in a country that, quite rightly, was unwilling to deport them. Indeed, deportation would be an economic and humanitarian disaster because it would separate millions of children born in the United States from their own parents and by one estimate could even cost the country an astounding $114 billion.

The bill was a compromise in the best sense of the word. Neither McCain nor Kennedy considered the bill to be their perfect ideal, but they both strongly believed it would be a massive improvement over the status quo, both for immigrants and for American citizens. By negotiating across the aisle, they crafted a bill that could actually get the votes needed to pass.

A version of the bill, backed by President George Bush, passed the Senate in 2006, but it never got a vote in the House. Another try in 2007 faltered in the Senate. In 2013, after Kennedy passed away, McCain joined three other Republicans and four Democrats to produce another bill modeled on his efforts with Kennedy. It passed with a supermajority of the votes in the Senate, however, once again failed to get a vote in the House.

As our nation comes together to mourn the loss of McCain, there could be few more fitting tributes to his legacy than to revive the McCain Kennedy plan for comprehensive immigration reform. By setting aside our partisan differences, we could finally resolve one of the greatest policy challenges of our nation today in a way that honors the law, secures our borders, keeps families together, fuels economic growth, and respects the great American tradition of being a refuge for those yearning to breathe free, a tradition McCain spent his entire life and legacy working to defend.

Matthew Soerens is the United States director of church mobilization for the nonprofit organization World Relief and the coauthor of “Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate.”

Tags Citizenship Congress Government Immigration John McCain United States

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