In his inaugural address on Monday, President Obama called on Congress to “welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.” Though the speech has been widely described as a liberal one, members of both parties have affirmed recently that they share the same goal.
“The first steps to get to reform have already taken place,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez in an interview with Colorlines.com following the speech. Gutierrez is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, where bill will land, and among the leading advocates for immigration reform on Capitol Hill. “The most important thing now is that we get to go to the dance and we have a dance partner…. Now, we have a partner who actually wants to fix something.”
But initial moves to join hands does not itself mean the the immigration reform process will move ahead without a hitch. Questions remain about how an immigration reform bill will unfold and who will be included. Importantly, there remains a familiar divide between Democrats, who seek one big bill, and Republicans who would like to move through the process in stages.
Just over a week ago, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, discussed an outline of an immigration reform proposal that includes eventual citizenship for undocumented immigration. Rubio’s proposal would unfold in a handful of bills that together amount to an immigration law overhaul. Though the piecemeal approach to reform is notably different in form from leading Democratic and bi-partisan omnibus proposals in past years, the substance of Rubio’s proposals look similar to those floated by Democrats.
“I read Marco Rubio’s principles, and they are all excellent,” Gutierrez told Colorlines. “If you look at Rubio’s principles they have a lot of common” with earlier bi-partisan immigration proposals.
Both Rubio’s plan and, according to initial reports, the White House plan, include a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants with eventual route to citizenship. Along the way, immigrants would have to pay fines, back taxes, and other penalties. The plans would require employers to verify the immigration status of hires and permit highly educated immigrants to stay in the country. Both the Rubio plan and initial Democratic principals would include a guest worker program tied to the demands of business.
Though substantively similar to the Democratic vision for reform, by virtue of being a Republican Rubio provides some cover to conservatives who previously opposed immigration law changes.
Talk radio host Sean Hannity said Rubio’s plan was “the most thoughtful bill that I have heard heretofore. And Fox News host Bill O’Reilly told Rubio last Wednesday, “I like your program. I think it’s fair.”
Pundits don’t make policy and the more important signs of planned action come from Washington. Last week, leading Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who opposed immigration reform as “amnesty” during his vice presidential bid last year, wrote on his Facebook page, “Senator Rubio is exactly right on the need to fix our broken immigration system.”
“I support the principles he’s outlined: modernization of our immigration laws; stronger security to curb illegal immigration; and respect for the rule of law in addressing the complex challenge of the undocumented population. Our future depends on an immigration system that works,” Ryan wrote.
Other leading Republicans have emerged in support of reform. A bi-partisan group of senators who likely include Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah, along with leading Democrats like New York Sen. Charles Schumer, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey are at work on an immigration reform proposal that’s expected to emerge in the next several weeks.
Though key Republican supporters continue to emerge, others remain mum on exactly what kind of immigration reform proposal they’ll support. South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. “I think you have to find a synthesis between the humanity that I think defines us as a people, and the respect for the rule of law that defines us as a republic,” Gowdy told a South Carolina paper in early January.
Conservative members of Congress like Gawdy face growing pressure from their own base to support an immigration reform bill. As President Obama addressed the nation yesterday, immigrant rights advocates rallied in Chicago for immigration reform and a halt to deportations while reform efforts move ahead. But it’s not just traditional Democratic supporters pressing for reform.
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of a dozen national evangelical groups and dozens of other individual congregations and leaders, launched a campaign last week calling immigration reform a Christian imperative. In an interview with Colorlines.com earlier this month, Gaylen Carey, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals said, “Evangelical support for immigration reform has been growing.”
“All human beings are created in the image of God. There’s an innate dignity that needs to be respected in all aspects of our immigration work.”
Where They Disagree
But while a consensus is emerging on the need for an immigration reform bill that includes citizenship for immigrants, tensions remain about how the legislation will proceed. Whether reform will move as a single bill or in in a series of smaller laws, as Rubio has proposed, may be the less contentious than the precise content of the legislation.
Many evangelical groups, for example, oppose calls by many Democrats to include provisions allowing same-sex couples to petition for a green card for an undocumented partner.
And though Rubio and some other Republicans now support a path to citizenship, it’s not clear what hurdles and barriers will be placed along the way.
“One of the hardest will be defining just how the bill will incorporate people into society—what their pathway to citizenship will look like,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t believe it’s going to be easy but [the path] has to be certain.”
To what extent an immigration bill will include additional enforcement measures may also draw divisions. Rubio told the Wall Street Journal he would demand still more immigration enforcement before improved before citizenship is granted to undocumented immigrants.
In the past, Republicans have refused to support reform until the administration expanded enforcement programs, and though Gutierrez says he’s hopeful Republicans have moved past “saying ‘secure the border, secure the border, secure the border,’ before we can start a pathway to legalization,” Rubio appeared to leave open such a posture.
In light of a recent report revealing that the federal government poured an historic $18 billion into immigration enforcement last year and the widely known fact that Obama administration deported people at a rate higher than any previous president, many immigrant rights advocates are clear that they will resist additional investments in immigration enforcement.
Some Washington insiders suspect that Republicans will focus these enforcement demands on on the workplace rather than the border or on calls for additional deportation.
“The conversation so far on the Hill and at the White House is if there’s to be any kind of road to citizenship for the 11 million, one of the major things that Republicans want to bargain is mandatory E-verify,” a leading advocate for immigration reform told Colorlines.com earlier this month. The E-verify program lets employers check the immigration status of job applicants.
Some Democratic staffers say their bosses will pursue greater due process protections for immigrants facing deportation and their families, even as 2013 budget requests from federal agencies ask for more funding for immigration jails.
Now, observers wait to see from where the opening bid on reform will come. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, who will play a key part in the passage of a bill, called on President Obama to send a reform package to Congress, rather than wait for congressional action. “If the president does send up specific language that would make it easier because we’ll work from that,” Leahy said, the National Journal reports.
Meanwhile, the bi-partisan group of senators may release a platform first, or Rubio could release a more detailed proposal. What’s clear is that from one direction or another, an immigration reform will appear within a few months and regardless of where it comes from, it’s basic contours are already in view.