The state law passed last month in Arizona has pushed immigration reform once again onto the nation’s front burner. The law makes illegal immigration a state crime, as well as a violation of federal law, and allows police to request proof of citizenship from anyone they reasonably suspect of being an illegal immigrant. While the front burner is where immigration policy ought to be, Congress is unlikely to pass an immigration reform bill this election year. Much of the electorate is still reeling from effects of the recession, which has put it in a contrarian, anti-immigrant state of mind.
A week after the Arizona bill was signed, however, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York and several other Democrats introduced a “framework on immigration reform” in preparation for what may soon become a bill. The framework is both timely and important. It also happens to be the sole comprehensive proposal on this issue, and it addresses the thorniest question of the immigration policy debate: What should be done about the 12 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States? Most are from Mexico, and many are members of families that include U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, a fact that has made compliance with current immigration policy destructive of family life. Immigration reform must remedy that situation.
The 26-page framework, “Real Enforcement with Practical Answers for Immigration Reform” (known as Repair), has four components: 1) enforcement and internal security; 2) a new biometric, “fraud-proof” Social Security card for all U.S. workers; 3) a process for admitting temporary workers; and 4) a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Enforcement would include tighter border controls and a requirement that all visitors to the United States provide biometric information by which the government can track visa overstays. Overstays account for some 40 percent of all illegal immigration.
The proposed path to citizenship is long and difficult. To become a “lawful prospective immigrant” requires registration, fingerprinting, a background check and payment of fines for having broken the law. Step two, “lawful permanent residency,” requires eight more years of residence, a crime-free record, an application for a green card, proficiency in English, the filing of tax returns and payment of back taxes.
Other provisions pertain to the status of spouses and children, relatives and same-sex partners; workers in agriculture and the dairy industry; students with advanced degrees; and professional work visas. The framework also includes the Dream Act, which makes the children of illegal immigrants who have graduated from a U.S. high school or served honorably in the military eligible for citizenship.
The plan was originally prepared by Senator Schumer and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican. The two co-introduced the framework in an article on the op-ed page of The Washington Post on March 19, but Senator Graham pulled out later. The proposal ought to have bipartisan appeal, and eventually it may.
So far, however, opponents have balked. Some have called for “border patrols first,” an enforcement-only approach that has been tried with little success, despite the billions of tax dollars spent. That strategy would leave 12 million immigrants in the shadows, and the employers who need immigrant workers would continue to depend on a supply of illegal laborers.
A comprehensive approach—to enforcement, lawful assimilation of undocumented residents and employment of immigrants—is imperative. The biometric identification card raises privacy concerns, but it is a tracking tool and should not trump the main issues in formulating a reform bill.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long promoted a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform bill. With some reservations, Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Migration, has called the framework “an important first step” and welcomed its “general direction,” which includes “the legalization of the undocumented and improvements to our employment and family-based immigration systems.”
Arizona has launched the discussion. Now Congress must act. Yet legislators cannot shoulder this load alone, nor should they. Latinos themselves must press both parties to think long-term and act in the national interest. Immigration reform will also require strong presidential leadership. Catholic leaders will be needed to help shape the national debate. After all, most of the immigrants in question are Catholics. The voters, too, especially Catholics, ought to consider their own immigrant beginnings, the church’s social teaching and the biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger. That perspective could promote a policy that is generous or, at the very least, fair and forward-looking.