The U.S. Senate has begun floor debate this week on perhaps the most important piece of legislation it will see this session and the most significant change to U.S. immigration policy since 1965. This plan for comprehensive immigration reform was crafted by a bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight.” The bill addresses numerous key issues: border security, illegal immigration and paths to citizenship, visa policy and policy provisions that would attract labor to fill important gaps.
Though the legislation is not perfect, it represents an important step forward in fixing an immigration system that Republicans and Democrats agree is broken.
It has become somewhat of a truism to say that the United States is a “nation of immigrants.” This theme became poignant to me recently as I, for the first time in my life, began to seriously investigate my family’s original trek to the United States. I pored over documents showing a desperate search for economic opportunity, a 1912 journey across the Atlantic in a ship belching black smoke called The Grampian, and a 10-year stretch that saw my grandmother’s family living in Belfast, Glasgow, Winnipeg and eventually South Boston.
The most fascinating document showed their border crossing into the U.S. in 1920. My great-grandmother made the journey from Manitoba, Canada, without her husband, crossing over in Vermont, accompanied by her five children, the oldest of whom was 9 and the youngest of whom was only 4 months old.
I imagine many Americans have stories just like this — transcontinental migrations that seem almost superhuman. These families made the journey buoyed by hopes of a better life, chased by the squalor and the lack of opportunity they left behind.
Yet millions of individuals live in this country immersed in that same arduous experience. The legislation currently being debated in the Senate addresses this by creating an earned 13-year pathway to citizenship for those presently here illegally — conditional on employment, background checks, paying any back taxes owed, and fines for their illegal entry into the country. In addition, the legislation includes the DREAM Act, which would create a more rapid passage to citizenship for those illegally brought to the country as children provided they demonstrate educational achievement or service in the U.S. military.
However, this bill is a product of bipartisan compromise. All of the changes above are conditional upon serious enhancement of border security in the United States. In fact, the present proposal mandates that the changes above will only go into effect once we have attained 90 percent effectiveness in immigration enforcement on the southwestern border. The bill makes participation in the “E-Verify” program, which ensures that employees are legally eligible to work in the U.S., mandatory for employers (much to the chagrin of some libertarians). Furthermore, those on a path to citizenship would not be granted any federal means-tested benefits such as welfare or Medicaid until they became naturalized citizens. The fact remains that immigrants currently contribute far more to such systems than they ever extract in terms of benefits.
At the same time, the legislation modernizes our visa system moving from a quota system based on geographical origin to a more sensible points-based system that rewards labor and skills in high demand, while retaining an emphasis on family reunification.
By now, it should be clear that the bill is a product of hard-fought compromise, a balance between those who desire enhanced tools for border security and those who seek practical policy measures aimed at regularizing the status of those in the country illegally and continuing to attract vital and skilled migrant labor. Citizens should call upon their legislators to move swiftly to pass this important starting point for a fair and sensible immigration policy.
Robert W. Glover is the CLAS-Honors preceptor of political science at the University of Maine where his research focuses on the politics of immigration in the United States. He is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.