The Gang of 8 hoped to gain a majority large enough to send a message across Capitol Hill about the momentum behind an overhaul of the country’s immigration system. The four Republicans and four Democrats captured 68 votes for their sweeping and necessary measure, a number that should impress given the divisions that have afflicted the Senate. Will it prove sufficient to advance the cause in the House?
It should. The troubled immigration system poses thorny political problems, with so many interests vying, from business and labor to farm workers and growers. Then add an expanding Latino population and tea partyers, both wielding much influence. The Gang of 8 navigated well, producing flawed legislation yet an essential compromise, combining a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants with tougher measures to enforce the border.
The result is something better than what the country now has, even with the provisions that involve practically throwing money at border security. The bill promises greater order, the way open, for instance, to a better guest worker program and to highly skilled workers coming here.
Those “dreamers,” or the children of illegal immigrants brought to this country at a young age, finally would be recognized for what they are — Americans. A mean-spirited and ineffective detention apparatus would be improved.
Too bad, then, to see John Boehner show disdain for what the Senate has accomplished. The House speaker says his chamber won’t bother taking up the Senate bill. It will proceed on its own, or in a fashion that signals little interest in the required compromise. Too many House Republicans see the Senate advancing an “amnesty” bill. They ignore the share of responsibility on this side of the border, American employers long taking advantage of the opportunity to hire cheap labor.
That element of the employer has been on the mind of Sen. Rob Portman. The Ohio Republican found himself in a tussle with the Gang of 8, insisting that his support required a separate vote on an amendment to strengthen E-Verify, a federal system used to check the legal eligibility of new hires. The system is voluntary now, and lightly used. The compromise legislation would make it mandatory for all employers.
Portman rightly argues the mechanism is crucial to addressing illegal immigration, plus smarter than a “surge” of border guards and adding miles and miles of fence. He has been a critic of excessive regulation of business. Here is a rule that he views as indispensable — if the country wants to avoid a repeat of the past three decades, a makeover of the immigration system resulting eventually in the same problems.
No surprise Portman encountered opposition, businesses worried about the added burden, others seeing government intrusion, or an avenue to additional foreign workers. The E-verify mechanism has improved in recent years, recording fewer misidentifications. Yet it requires substantial upgrades like those Portman proposes, enhancing the photo identification, ensuring privacy, protecting employers who seem to comply in good faith.
In the end, Portman did not support the compromise, his amendment failing to make the bill, let alone serving as the focus of a separate vote. The idea of grabbing the attention of the House, as Portman argued, seems more of a pipe dream, in light of the speaker and the tea partyers.
Ideally, Portman would have joined the larger deal, his presence adding to its political heft, providing a vehicle for pressing his worthy cause. He is correct about the weak link at the hiring point.
Yet, in a way, neither the senator nor his gang of colleagues has the right tool. If E-verify can be cumbersome and error-prone, biometric identification cards promise greater simplicity and accuracy, albeit with a high upfront cost. They already are part of our passports, carrying unique identifiers. To be sure, such identification cards pose their own set of tall political obstacles. Yet they do reflect what is required to deal with our immigration problem, leaving the country to face more squarely the reality of an economy increasingly intertwined with its neighbors.