It has been an interesting several weeks in American politics. Partisan brinksmanship in Congress led to a 16-day government shutdown estimated to have cost the American economy $24 billion (up to $72 million in Maine alone). The United States faced down the threat of breaching the debt ceiling and a default. In a recent poll, nearly half of Americans surveyed suggested that replacing everyone in Congress might not be such a bad idea.
What, if anything, might Congress do to restore its tarnished reputation?
The U.S. Congress, particularly the bitterly divided House of Representatives, needs to show the American people that it is capable of taking on hard issues and actually producing legislation. Thankfully, such an issue already exists, and the legislation designed to address it has been sitting on the desks of every member of the House: comprehensive immigration reform.
It has been more than seven months since details of the proposal first emerged from a bipartisan group of senators known as the “gang of eight.” The legislation aims to address the broken immigration system in its totality. It strengthens border security and interior enforcement. Yet it does this while creating a 13-year path to citizenship for those here illegally who are willing to pay penalties and back taxes, learn English, undergo background checks, and maintain steady employment. Lastly, the package reforms the visa system to align it with the needs of our economy and society.
The legislation is not perfect, but it offers solutions to serious shortcomings in U.S. immigration policy that are long overdue. As the president said in remarks last week, we can no longer wait to address these important issues.
The reform proposal passed the Senate handily, with independent Maine Sen. Angus King offering an eloquent defense of the bill. However, the legislation became bogged down in the House. Many Republicans will only support a piecemeal approach, addressing each aspect of immigration individually. They want to deal with immigration enforcement first, while stalling on other dimensions of immigration reform indefinitely.
This “piecemeal solution” is untenable for two reasons. First, it fails to recognize the interdependence of these different dimensions of immigration policy. For instance, one can’t realistically hope to stop the flow of migrants without also addressing visa policy for the sectors of the economy that depend vitally on migrant labor. Such shortsightedness could send entire sectors of the American economy, such as agriculture or the service sector, into a tailspin.
Second, comprehensive reform has been pushed forward by a broad coalition of advocates, all with different stakes and desired outcomes in relation to immigration: labor unions and corporate lobbies, ethnic advocacy organizations and tech giants, human rights organizations and evangelical faith-based groups. The House Republicans’ piecemeal strategy of dealing with some issues, while postponing or ignoring others, would obliterate this fragile coalition. In addition, it would likely destroy the broad legislative and popular support for the proposal.
So what are the consequences if Congress fails to pass the legislation? The Immigration Policy Center addresses the concrete “cost of doing nothing” in a recent report: billions spent on border security that has been ineffective, hundreds of migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border, thousands of parents separated from U.S.-citizen children by deportation and removal policies. In economic terms, numerous studies have shown that a path to citizenship for those currently in the country illegally would mean increased tax revenues, greater consumer spending, and thousands of jobs created.
But it would do more than this. Americans currently harbor a toxic cynicism toward political institutions, especially Congress. Passing immigration reform would show us that our political system is not beyond repair. It would remind us that our nation’s leaders still have the capacity to address important issues and craft shared policy solutions, even while disagreeing on details. In short, such a gesture might redeem Congress in the eyes of a citizenry that has very nearly lost its faith.
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.