Three weeks ago, when an immigration bill was first being introduced in the U.S. Senate, I wrote a piece summarizing what was in it. And although some debate and analysis over the nuances of the bill have taken place since, the real work begins this week as Congress returns from recess. The bill is headed for mark-up in the Senate Judiciary Committee beginning Thursday, May 9. From now until the August recess, immigration will be the most pressing issue both on the Senate and House floors, and in the public arena.
Immigration has been touted as the potential signature domestic policy achievement of President Obama's his second term, if he is able to convince Congress to enact comprehensive reform. In order to even have a chance of Republican cooperation, the Obama administration, past and presently, has had to show toughness on border security and undocumented immigrants.
Even with the White House’s decision in August 2012 to accept applications for deferred deportation for young undocumented immigrants, the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency reports that it deported 409,849 individuals in fiscal year 2012, an increase of 11% since fiscal 2008 (the last fiscal year under President George W. Bush). Under the proposed provisions, December 31, 2011 is the proposed cut-off date by which illegal immigrants must have arrived in the U.S. These immigrants would be eligible for a pathway to citizenship, while those who came after that date would be deported. However, reliable figures on illegal immigration and border enforcement are hard to come by, as disputes over the Obama administration’s possibly inflated deportation numbers in 2010 have questioned just how tough the White House has truly been. Concrete data shows that the number of border-patrol agents has increased 6.3% since fiscal year 2009 (a year mostly controlled by the outgoing Bush’s fiscal policy) — in other words, the Obama administration has maintained a high level of border-enforcement personnel. This level may have been reduced due to the effects of the sequestration cuts, but on the other hand this level is expected to significantly rise again under the provisions of the current immigration bill.
Currently, opponents of the bill have aimed break the comprehensive package down into parts well-received and parts in contention, which effectively weakens the carefully crafted legislation. The left has pushed for an amendment to address the lack of inclusion of same-sex partner rights, while conservatives have expressed concern over a perceived shortcoming in border control and the E-verify system. Immigration reform has not been successfully passed since the Reagan administration, and failed as recently as 2006 under the Bush administration. The Gang of Eight, the senators pushing the bill through, recognized that no stakeholders would be fully satisfied by the bill, though the parts that were viewed as politically acceptable on the whole. The strength of the bill lies in its comprehensive framework. It will be important to note just how much the original composition of the bill is maintained if and when the bill reaches the Senate floor. If immigration reform doesn’t reach its final stages by the peak of summer, then the same hard choices will only keep presenting themselves in the future.
In late April, pundits such as Maureen Dowd and Joe Scarborough took to questioning the strength of the president's “bully pulpit” and doubting his resolve to mobilize support for his agenda within Congress. However, with the Gang of Eight spearheading clear bipartisan support, the epicenter of the effort seems to be on Capitol Hill for now. Led by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Gang of Eight is attempting to craft a supermajority in the Senate and push congruent action in the Republican-controlled House. Meanwhile, Obama’s push for the rejected DREAM Act in 2010 and his deferred action plan of 2012 should demonstrate his commitment to immigration reform to any doubters. President Obama is hopeful and predicts that immigration can pass in the House, stating that the bill is a “good piece of work” that doesn’t include everything he would like but still meets his “core requirements.”
Obama’s oft-stated belief in an economy where everyone has a fair shot and plays by the same set of rules is in line with the bill’s provisions to crack down on the hiring of undocumented immigrants, strengthen border security, and streamline legal immigration. Immigration reform is of utmost importance to the millions of hopeful American families, and to President Obama’s legacy. It's a fight is guided by principle and by the ideals of opportunity and fairness. As with so many bills in Congress, the devil is in the details.