Nothing will redeem the cowardice that the U.S. Senate — or at least a shameless minority — displayed last week in killing modest gun-control legislation. But if senators want to persuade Americans that they can act at least occasionally as a productive and representative body, they’ll approve the compromise immigration-reform bill before them.
The measure isn’t perfect. No compromise is, in such a polarized government and nation. Opponents already are using the Boston Marathon terror bombings — allegedly committed by ethnic Chechens who were legal American residents — to skew the debate.
Still, the bill represents the best available hope of providing a path to legal status and permanent citizenship for most of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants. Bringing them out of the shadows will contribute more to our economy than it will cost.
“These people are not going to go away,” says Baldemar Velasquez, the president and founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union that represents agricultural workers in Ohio and Michigan. “The job market demands their involvement. So let’s make taxpayers out of them.”
The proposed reforms are the product of months of negotiations among eight Democratic and Republican senators. They include some tough but necessary trade-offs, such as placing a relatively higher priority on visas for skilled, educated, and entrepreneurial immigrants — including engineers and scientists who are graduating from American universities — and less on reuniting extended families.
The bill would turn undocumented immigrants into “registered provisional” ones, who could work and travel legally. They would have to pay back taxes and a $1,000 fine, on top of another $1,000 to apply for and renew legal status. They would have to pass a background check, maintain a clean criminal record, and meet work requirements.
Applications for legalization would be taken for just two years, which doesn’t seem nearly enough time to handle all the paperwork. Even then, applicants would have to wait 10 years for a green card, which confers permanent resident status and qualifies its holders for federal benefits, and 13 years for full citizenship.
That’s a long time — perhaps too long — to stand at the back of the line. But removing the fear of being deported might make that wait more tolerable and defensible.
The reform package also includes provisions of the Dream Act, a good bill that has stalled in Congress. It would enable young people whose parents brought them illegally to this country as children, and who attend college or serve in the Armed Forces, to be legalized and to apply for green cards in five years.
The measure aims to eliminate backlogs of immigration applications from people in foreign countries. At the same time, it would crack down on legal entrants who overstay their visas.
The chronic complaints are that illegal immigrants steal jobs from Americans, depress wages, and get education and health-care services without paying their equivalent in taxes. But studies across the ideological spectrum conclude that effective immigration reform would help promote economic output and growth, increase national income and tax revenue, and reduce the federal deficit by trillions of dollars.
Immigrants are more likely to be part of the labor force than native-born citizens, often in low-paying and low-skill jobs that many Americans disdain even at a time of high unemployment. These workers’ contributions will grow increasingly necessary to sustain the costs of such programs as Social Security and Medicare.
Despite its appeal, the Senate bill could easily fall apart. Opponents’ demands for an impossible level of “border security” before the measure’s other reforms take effect could bring about another triumph of nativism.
The measure would require a showing that at least 90 percent of people who try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally at its busiest points get turned back — an arbitrary standard, and potentially an unverifiable one. More sensibly, it would require employers to check the immigration status of the people they hire against a federal database, and impose stiffer penalties on companies that flout the law.
As it is, the bill would spend $6.5 billion over a decade to strengthen the border with Mexico, deploying drones, high-tech surveillance, and more agents. That’s in addition to the $1 billion we’ve already spent on a “virtual fence” that was abandoned as unworkable.
Meanwhile, illegal border crossings have dropped by nearly half in the past four years. The Obama Administration has stepped up deportations. The Border Patrol employs twice the number of agents it did in 2004. And the recession has discouraged many would-be illegal immigrants from even trying to come here.
Even if the Senate approves its reform bill, the professional obstructionists in the GOP-controlled House can be counted on to try to kill it by shouting phony code words such as “amnesty.” The House blocked immigration reform six years ago, when Republican President George W. Bush advocated it. If senators, President Obama, and interest-group advocates want this bill, they’ll have to fight for it — hard.
Mr. Velasquez estimates that the immigration bill would benefit 7,000 to 10,000 workers on farms and in related industries in Ohio and Michigan. He notes that the compromise measure provides new labor protections for farm workers, including nonresident guest workers, as well as a special process for legal status and citizenship that will encourage them to continue to work in agriculture.
“Immigration law has to evolve to meet new human realities,” he told me. “Farmers in northwest Ohio favor immigration reform, because it will mean less turnover and more predictability. If we don’t get this right, it weakens America.”
The union leader calls farm workers “the hardest-working people in this country.” In an essay on this page, he argues that both farm workers and growers will continue to be victimized by their positions at the bottom of the nation’s food supply chain. But he calls the Senate bill “an important first step.”
Sensible, comprehensive immigration reform that repairs and modernizes a broken system will give our country greater access to skilled workers and encourage fuller participation in our national life by all residents. Our prosperity depends on it. It will enhance our humanity too.
Show some political courage, senators. Get it done.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com or on Twitter @dkushma1