Perfect could be enemy of the good on immigration

January 31st, 2013

by and


This piece was originally published in The Hill.

The phone rings in the house of an undocumented immigrant who has lived here for decades. The person on the line offers her a deal. If she registers with the US government, goes through a criminal background check, and pays a fine, she will be forever allowed to work, travel, and conduct her affairs in America without fear of deportation. For her children, even better — they will be given a fast-track path to citizenship. And down the line, once more is done to secure the border, she can get in the back of the line and eventually earn her citizenship as well.
Is there any chance she would say no?

On Monday, a bipartisan group of 8 Senators released an immigration reform proposal that would offer exactly that scenario to undocumented immigrants. Yet many reform advocates reacted warily to the plan, and even the Administration offered a few pointed criticisms in its otherwise favorable statement. In particular, they argued that using a “trigger” of border security to determine when some immigrants can move from a provisional legal status to a permanent one with a path to citizenship is unacceptable.

 It’s time for a dose of reality. The Senate plan is the best hope for immigration reform since Congress tried and failed in 2006 and 2007. If this is the year we finally reform our dilapidated system and deal humanely with the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows, it has to be this deeply bipartisan version. There is no other path. And those who want to see progress, including the White House, should put 100 percent of their efforts towards building support for the Senate package — not quibbling with its details.

The bipartisan Senate principles released this week are driven by two values Americans hold sacred: First, children should not be blamed for the actions of their parents; and second, adults who break the law should be held accountable. Under the Senate proposal, holding children blameless means creating an expedited pathway to citizenship for kids who came here illegally through no fault of their own. This could actually be more generous than the DREAM Act – legislation that Democrats have heralded for the past four years which would allow young people to earn citizenship but with high hurdles and long wait times in front of them.
Meanwhile, adults who came to this country illegally would be held accountable for breaking the law, but not face mass deportation — which is not just impractical and expensive but also cruel and vindictive. If they come forward and pay back taxes and fines, adult immigrants would be given legal status and the opportunity to eventually earn the privilege of citizenship, so long as certain benchmarks have been reached to secure our immigration system going forward.
In short, the Senate plan is tough on the border, fair to both immigrants and American taxpayers, and practical.
Supporters of reform believe that the growing Latino vote radically changes the political calculus for Republicans and makes success far more likely. Don’t be too sure. In 2006, the ground was even more fertile than today, with vocal support from Republicans President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain and Democrats Ted Kennedy and Majority Leader Harry Reid. Yet despite holding four aces, support for reform eroded in large part because immigration reform advocates argued about the details. While supporters dithered, opponents flooded congressional offices with calls and letters in opposition. The bill died in two separate attempts in the Senate. That could very easily happen again. In a divided Congress, the perfect is impossible but the good is achievable so long as those who want a solution don’t overplay their hand.
The solution proposed by the Senate’s Gang of 8 is politically feasible and consistent with American values. For Democrats, it is even more ambitious than the DREAM Act for kids; for Republicans, it means fixing our broken immigration system, securing the border, and ensuring citizenship is truly earned. If an undocumented immigrant were offered this deal, she would take it in a heartbeat. The Senate plan is the only path to breaking the logjam, and reform advocates should fully embrace it and begin building the support it needs to pass.