John McCain championed comprehensive reform of immigration laws in 2007, reversed course during a run for the presidency in 2008 and on Monday stood with seven other senators to offer an outline for comprehensive reform. If anything, the McCain reversals suggest a positive shift in the immigration debate and a renewed resolve in both parties to take on a contentious issue fraught with political risk.
The proposals put forward by the group of eight Democrats and Republicans hardly are radical. For the most part, they echo priorities that have been advocated by a Democratic President Obama (most recently reiterated in a speech on Tuesday in Las Vegas) as well as by a Republican President George W. Bush.
The call is for Congress and the White House to initiate changes that recognize the realities of the immigration challenge: that an estimated 11 million undocumented residents are not going to “self-deport,” least of all undocumented children who have grown up as Americans; that American businesses, agriculture and industries need flexibility to import labor, be it seasonal field workers or skilled professionals; and that the nation’s long-term interest is served by simplifying and strengthening the legal avenues to attract and absorb the enterprising immigrant spirit.
The senators offer a credible plan to address the highly charged issues. It would set up a process to legalize residency and work for illegal immigrants who pass a criminal background check. Among other requirements to acquire a green card, they would register with the government, pay a fine and back taxes and learn English and civics. Illegal immigrants who satisfy these conditions still would have to wait until Congress is satisfied that the borders are secure and legal immigrants ahead of them have gained permanent residency or citizenship. The proposal would map out a separate route for agricultural workers and “dreamers,” children brought here illegally.
Unfortunately, by making the path to citizenship contingent on border security, the plan gives too much credence to the notion that the federal government is not doing enough to secure its borders. For example, just this month, the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute issued a report detailing the “historic transformation” in the scope and nature of immigration enforcement and the record pace of deportations.
That’s not to say there is no reason to boost programs that are proving effective in curbing illegal immigration, such as the electronic verification system enabling employers to check the work eligibility of potential new hires. Rather, an effective approach to immigration reform must be grounded in the reality surrounding the border.