President Obama presented his immigration reform objectives yesterday. It differs from Monday’s Gang of Eight plan in two key ways, and both will be political hurdles. (More)

Immigration Reform: Plans and Distinctions

Yesterday President Obama presented his objectives for immigration reform:

It is time to act to fix the broken immigration system in a way that requires responsibility from everyone – both from the workers here illegally and those who hire them – and guarantees that everyone is playing by the same rules.

President Obama’s commonsense immigration reform proposal has four parts. First, continue to strengthen our borders. Second, crack down on companies that hire undocumented workers. Third, hold undocumented immigrants accountable before they can earn their citizenship; this means requiring undocumented workers to pay their taxes and a penalty, move to the back of the line, learn English, and pass background checks. Fourth, streamline the legal immigration system for families, workers, and employers.

At first glance, President Obama’s plan looks very similar to the plan proposed by the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight. Both plans feature improved border security, better employment verification, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, and a streamlined legal immigration process. But there are two differences between the plans … and both may be deal-breakers for some Republicans.

Border security: who decides?

Although both President Obama’s and the Gang of Eight’s plans mention improving border security, the Senate proposal also includes this paragraph:

We recognize that Americans living along the Southwest border are key to recognizing and understanding when the border is truly secure. Our legislation will create a commission comprised of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border to monitor the progress of securing our border and to make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measures outlined in the legislation are completed.

As the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent reported yesterday, not even the Gang of Eight seem to agree on what that means:

On CBS this morning, John McCain said the “final decision” about whether the border is secure will be made by the Department of Homeland Security, which suggests a diminished role for this commission, while remaining inconclusive on precisely how this process will work. But in an interview with Ed Morrissey late yesterday, Marco Rubio suggested he won’t support a path to citizenship unless the commission does sign off on border security, a position he reiterated in another interview. There’s no clear agreement even among Republicans about the role of this commission.

And yesterday Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said he will oppose any immigration reform that is not tied to “real enforcement triggers.” But “enforcement triggers” can mean many things, and may not mean giving elected officials in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California a veto over federal immigration policy.

The facts on border security:

Although President George W. Bush’s 2007 immigration reform plan failed, President Obama and Congress have already met or exceeded those proposed border security measures:

  • Border Patrol Agents – The 2007 plan called for 20,000 agents. In 2011 there were over 21,000 agents.
  • Technology – The 2007 plan called for 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 370 miles of fencing, 105 radar and camera towers, and 4 unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. By 2011 we had 651 miles of fencing including 299 vehicle barriers, 300 radar and camera towers, and 9 unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.
  • Detentions – The 2007 plan called for funding up to 30,000 detentions per day by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. By 2011, ICE had funding for 34,000 detentions per day.

Indeed, ICE has deported more people since 2009 than during the first six years of the Bush administration, and net migration across the Mexican border has reached zero, meaning as many (or more) people leave than arrive. Still, Republicans like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) insist President Obama won’t “secure the border,” which is a vague phrase on which there is no agreed definition.

What’s more, Republicans rarely mention our longer and less secure Canadian border, or that 40% undocumented workers arrive legally at airports and seaports and then overstay their visas. The GOP’s obsession on our Mexican border – with some insisting those four states should have veto power over federal immigration policy – proves, as CNN’s LZ Granderson mused during the 2012 Republican primaries, that “‘secure the border’ is slang for ‘keep the Mexicans out.'”

President Obama includes LGBT families

President Obama’s immigration reform proposal also included LGBT families:

The proposal seeks to eliminate existing backlogs in the family-sponsored immigration system by recapturing unused visas and temporarily increasing annual visa numbers. The proposal also raises existing annual country caps from 7 percent to 15 percent for the family-sponsored immigration system. It also treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner. The proposal also revises current unlawful presence bars and provides broader discretion to waive bars in cases of hardship.

Needless to say, that outraged some Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC), who remarked: “Why don’t we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out?

But Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) did not rule out adding LGBT families to the Gang of Eight’s plan, saying: “We haven’t even gotten that far yet. This is thrown out by the people who think we have gotten into the details, which we haven’t. We haven’t gotten into those kind of details.”

Both President Obama’s and the Gang of Eight’s proposals are merely outlines and, as with any legislation, the details will matter. For example, current visa and green card quotas would leave many undocumented workers waiting decades to start their paths to citizenship. Still, the proposals seem close enough that President Obama and Senate Democrats should be able to gather enough Senate Republicans to pass a reasonable package. The issue then shifts to the House, where – because most Republicans come from almost exclusively white districts – Speaker John Boehner may have to abandon the Hastert Rule again and pass a bill with mostly Democratic votes.

Color me … cautiously optimistic.


Happy Wednesday!