Immigration Reform 2013: How Washington is Framing the Debate

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a meeting on "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" in Washington D.C. that detailed what issues Congress must address in creating meaningful legislation on immigration reform. While the mainstream media is reporting on the politics and trivial issues we can find common ground on, we should listen closely to Washington D.C.'s legislators and how they are framing immigration policy within the next few months.

Upon being questioned by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on whether or not it was the right time for America to pursue immigration reform, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano firmly stated, "this is the moment." My attendance at this meeting gave me confidence that we will hopefully see some comprehensive immigration reform of some sorts that addresses the displaced 11 million undocumented immigrants during President Obama's second term. 

Both Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies stated their concern of large-scale amnesty. They questioned whether or not comprehensive immigration reform legislation would constitute more illegal immigration if the United States does not currently have the capacity to control the illegal immigration through border security and visa overstays. Currently, as some senators acknowledged, approximately 40% of illegal immigration to the United States is due to visa overstays.

While it's clear border security will continue to be a central concern, more specific details were not panned out. Although Secretary Napolitano acknowledged a 700-mile fence had just been finished along the U.S.-Mexico border, Republican senators continued to berate her over low operational control of certain border areas that led to disproportionate border crossings. 

Too often do immigrants legally enter the U.S. without the intention of leaving, which leads to widespread visa overstays. Secretary Napolitano said the Department of Homeland Security is implementing an enhanced biographic system on immigrants’ visas that exit the U.S. and in the future hopes to push for a biometric exit tracking system, a promise they made in March 2012. Americans will be dismayed to hear that Napolitano stated the biometric program would be heavily costly.

Another key issue was family reunification. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), a freshman on the Senate Judiciary Committee, laid out an eloquent argument for the family reunification of Filipino WWII veterans in a likely push to advocate for the Asian Pacific American community. Arguing the very emotional, human issue of not passing immigration reform, the staunch advocate in the room was Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American. View his testimony below: 


While Vargas' moving testimony sheds light on how legal immigration must be reformed, it also begs the question of how much more immigration will occur if more people are granted permanent residency via immigration reform.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Napolitano how big undocumented immigrants families were and how many family members would be brought to the U.S. if immigration reform were passed. For now, Napolitano stated that DHS needed further inquiry, but legalizing and bringing the families of 11 million immigrants who currently reside in the U.S. could prove to be detrimental. 

For now, we understand that without proper border security and implementation of visa overstay programs, Congress should not implement comprehensive immigration reform. However, let us not be fooled into thinking that illegal immigration is as easy as it was back in 1986 when President Reagan granted nearly 3 million immigrants amnesty. Many Senators on the committee agreed that Congress must pass legislation on what they already agree on like giving pathways to citizenship to low priority cases, high skilled workers, and youth who know no home other than America. 

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Brian Kim

Student at American University in Washington DC. I follow US foreign policy and Northeast Asian politics.

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