Earlier this week a bill was filed by two retiring Republicans in the U.S. Senate that would allow immigrants brought to America illegally as minors to gain legal status. The bill’s co-authors, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, each of whom hopes to provide a framework for future discussions about changes to immigration policies in their final weeks as U.S. Senators, intend to lay down a marker for future negotiations in Congress. Talks on immigration reform are thought to be the next big issue tackled in Congress after the “fiscal cliff” discussions have concluded in the near future.
The ACHIEVE Act, as the newly filed Kyl-Hutchison bill is known, seems the closest Republican equivalent of the much-touted DREAM Act the Democratic Party hoped to pass into law during the last electoral cycle, representing the most substantive Republican proposal as of yet regarding immigration reform in recent months — and, perhaps most importantly, the first proposal since President Barack Obama won reelection in large part due to overwhelming support among minority groups with very real concerns about both immigration policy itself and the strident rhetoric often accompanying it.
As Fox News Latino reported, President Obama won a record-breaking 72% of the Hispanic vote — to Romney’s 23%. Of course, immigration policies affect more than just Hispanics. President Obama won handily among other immigration-oriented groups like the Asian-American population, which went for Obama 73% to Romney’s 26%, as reported by CNN’s exit polls. CNN’s final poll numbers differ slightly from those of Fox News Latino, but the point remains: immigrants reacted strongly to the unflattering and diminutive caricature drawn of them conceived by far too many in the GOP this year.
Senators Hutchison and Kyl present their ACHIEVE Act in the hope of staving off similar disasters in future campaigns by offering a plan that gives their party some room to maneuver. While Republicans, including these two senators, do not favor outright U.S. citizenship for anyone who entered the United States illegally, their path includes a permanent legal status for those illegal immigrants who wish to remain in the United States and become more fully integrated into broader American society. Because of this, fervent advocates of policies like the DREAM Act who are holding out for offers of general amnesty and citizenship are unlikely to throw their weight behind the ACHIEVE Act.
As the Texas Tribune has already very aptly summarized:
“Under the Kyl-Hutchison proposal, applicants must have lived in the country for five years; entered the country before the age of 14; have not have committed a felony, more than one misdemeanor or a crime of moral turpitude; and must not have a final order of removal pending. They must also know English and have a working knowledge of the U.S. government, according to Hutchison's website.
Approved applicants would receive a new W-1 visa, which would require them to check in with the Department of Homeland Security every six months and would not allow access to welfare or federal benefits, including student loans. They would then be eligible for subsequent visas that allow them to continue to work and eventually apply for a permanent nonimmigrant visa.”
If the ACHIEVE Act sounds vaguely familiar, a good deal of the bill is. Its purpose is not so much to introduce radically new ideas into public policy discussion as to stake out a conservative claim to ideas already circulating. Much of the ACHIEVE Act’s purpose would be to legitimize through Congress what President Obama has done unilaterally already with his “deferred action” executive order — encapsulated here by the Daily Beast. I would add to the Texas Tribune’s account, just to further clarify, that those immigrants who wish to go through the existing route to citizenship — waiting in line to receive a green card, etc. — would still be able to do so. The ACHIEVE Act is meant to supplement, not alter, existing law.
In their announcement of this bill, (watch video of their press conference), Senator Kyl mentioned that prominent figures like Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain support their efforts. Such support will be integral to determining the bill’s fate in the days ahead. Hopefully, these and other Republicans pick up where Hutchison and Kyl have left off and continue the work of bridging gaps between political parties and factions within parties. Making inroads with immigrant-oriented groups needs to be one of the GOP’s biggest priorities for the foreseeable future. As Senator Hutchison says in their announcement, it’s very much “a time-sensitive issue.”
In the next Congress, there will be great opportunity for politicians on either side of the aisle to pick up the issue of achieving some kind of large-scale immigration reform and run with it.