By Julyssa Lopez
The debate over comprehensive immigration reform has permeated political discussions this year, and George Washington University President Steven Knapp recently addressed the community about the issue’s importance. A group of senators known as the Gang of Eight came together to draft a bipartisan proposal to help solve the country’s immigration problems. They unveiled their final product this April—a lengthy bill proposal that totals 844 pages.
That bill is headed Thursday to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it will be discussed and ultimately passed or rejected in the Senate. If passed, the bill will go on to a vote in the House of Representatives. George Washington Today spoke to Professor of Geography and International Affairs Marie Price to learn more about what the Gang of Eight is proposing. Dr. Price, the coeditor of “Migrants to the Metropolis: The Rise of Immigrant Gateway Cities,” explained what the bill entails, how it will affect the country’s undocumented population and what hurdles it faces.
Q: Can you describe some of the arguments that divide politicians in this debate?
A: The people who feel we need comprehensive immigration reform look at the large numbers of undocumented people—approximately 11 million. Their undocumented status creates difficulties, including hardships on families and millions of working people fearing deportation. Many people opposed to immigration reform don’t want a path toward citizenship because they feel that it is rewarding illegal behavior. For people on the reform side, that’s the key point—there has to be a path. We could do nothing and live with the status quo, but nobody is happy about that.
Q: What have past reforms looked like?
A: The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 was the major one, and what it did and didn’t do is why there’s resistance to reform now. IRCA promised to bring people out of the shadows, meet labor needs and end illegal immigration for all time. People thought IRCA would legalize 1 million people, but it quickly legalized nearly 3 million. IRCA also imposed fines on employers who hired undocumented workers, but people could buy fraudulent Social Security cards to get around the law.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 toughened border security. The border got harder to cross, especially for Mexican workers who used to travel to and from the U.S. and Mexico. Scholars like Doug Massey say it inadvertently resulted in building up the undocumented population because it got too difficult and expensive to go back and forth, so many people just stayed.
George W. Bush almost signed an agreement with then-Mexican President Vicente Fox to allow temporary visas for Mexican workers, which would have addressed part of the undocumented population. But that conversation ended when 9/11 happened. We came close again in 2007 with the Kennedy/McCain Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill, but it wasn’t passed.
Q: Why are we revisiting the issue now?
A: Looking at immigrant and undocumented flows, there’s an increase in immigrants from all over Latin America, but especially from Central America. Latinos in the U.S. total 50 million, and they’ll exert more political pull in the future. Due to where we are in the political cycles, it seems as if this is the best moment to get reform done. Politicians know that as more U.S.-born Latinos come of age, they’re likely to vote because they know it matters.
One big difference in the 1986 reform was that the heated discussions were mostly in Southwestern states such as Arizona and Texas. Now the impact of immigrants is felt everywhere. Chambers of commerce are saying to Congress, “We need the best labor, the best brains and people who are willing to do low-skilled jobs.” From an economic-business standpoint, there’s lots of support for reform.
Q: The Senators who created this bill are called the “Gang of Eight.” Can you talk about who they are?
A: The Gang of Eight got together systematically—four Republicans and four Democrats—to reach a bipartisan compromise. At the core of the immigration debate is how to deal with this undocumented population, which is overwhelmingly Latino. Although reform will impact all immigrants, it’s no accident that prominent Latinos are in the Gang of Eight: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
Q: So what does the Gang of Eight’s bill propose to do?
A: It’s vast. A big portion goes to the issue of border security—although recent numbers show there are fewer people trying to cross the border. It proposes double- and triple-fencing, use of motion detection sensors, fixed aircraft and even drones to pick up images and movement. Interestingly, close to half of our undocumented population is made up of visa over-stayers who legally entered with temporary visas and didn’t leave. All the border security in the world is not addressing that population.
The big policy change for dealing with the undocumented population is creating a registered provisional immigrant (RPIs) status. RPIs won’t be deported, but they won’t be legal permanent residents either. You qualify for RPI status if you came to the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2011. Millions of people can live without fear of deportation, but they have to do some work—they’ll pay fees of $500 to $1,000 and back taxes and maintain this status for 10 years. Then, they can get legal permanent residency, followed by citizenship after three years. Unlike 1986, when someone could obtain a green card in months, the fastest route to citizenship will take 13 years. That’s the compromise. It’s not an amnesty; you’ve got to prove yourself.
There will also be a mandatory E-Verify system for employers. Everyone applying for jobs will have to register in a database to confirm they’re eligible to work. It will be a complex and very expensive database. To address business concerns of recruiting more highly skilled labor, they’ve also proposed more temporary H-1B worker visas for anyone who gets an advanced degree in the U.S. in a STEM subject.
Q: Are there any exceptions in the bill—for example, undocumented students?
A: One compelling group is the DREAMers category. DREAMers are immigrants who came here quite young, went to high school and are fully Americanized. They’re often more connected to this society than the places they came from. Yet, DREAMers cannot get driver’s licenses in most states. They can’t legally work. When they apply to college, in some states they have to pay out-of-state tuition. The argument is that as a society, we’ve invested in these children. Under this bill, DREAMers will get a provisional status and can be permanent residents within five years. Their path is shorter.
The other exception is agricultural workers, who will also have a shorter path. Farm workers’ unions have said, “These are people who have literally broken their backs working and harvesting crops; there should be a way for them to be here legally.”
Q: It sounds like the bill is going to require lots of manpower. Will it create new bureaucracy?
A: There’s a little bit for everyone, but it’s going to be expensive. In the proposal, I saw figures for border security of $2 billion here, $3 billion there. The proposal also has new revenue in terms of fees and fines. Another problem that jumps out is that they’ve set a December 2011 deadline for RPI status. The law might pass next year. If it passes, the people who entered in 2012 or later will form part of the undocumented population without RPI. Fifteen years from now, we may be talking about reform again.
The bureaucracy involved is not inconsiderable. It will be a bonanza for immigration attorneys. We’re going to need more judges and staff to handle 11 million RPI cases. Right now, less than 1 million people become legal permanent residents yearly. The government will have to expand its capacity considerably to adjust to the flood of people who will register. Also, everyone will be impacted by E-Verify.
Q: Is the bill likely to pass?
A: There was a rally on April 10, and I met with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who were optimistic about the bill passing in the Senate. I don’t hear the same optimism about it getting through the House, and you need both to create a law.