Assessing the New Republican “Standards for Immigration Reform”

Speaker of the House John Boehner has just released the Republican Party’s anxiously awaited and very brief “Standards for Immigration Reform.” President Obama and the Democrats, and the Senate generally, have needed a dancing partner to get immigration reform passed, move the country forward, and give it an economic boost by granting legal status and citizenship to the nearly 12 million unauthorized immigrants who are living in the shadows. Although it’s far from a concrete legislative proposal, the Standards released today at least give us a hint of what the Republican caucus might eventually be willing to vote on.

My initial reaction to the Standards can be summed up as, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Boehner laid out six specific Standards. Much of it is unobjectionable and looks very similar to what passed in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill (S. 744) in the summer. The section titled “Border Security and Interior Enforcement Must Come First” is vague and takes a jab at administrations from both parties for not adequately enforcing immigration laws, and takes a thinly veiled swipe at President Obama by noting that presidents should not be able to “unilaterally stop immigration enforcement.” This of course, ignores the nearly two million deportations the president’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has carried out, much to the chagrin of his progressive supporters and immigration advocates. The “Employment Verification and Workplace Enforcement” and “Implement Entry-Exit Visa Tracking System” sections are also vague, but broadly call for E-Verify and entry-exit visa system reforms like those in S. 744. One notable exception is the Republicans’ insistence that the entry-exit system be biometric. (Whether such a system should be biometric was a main topic of contention during the Senate’s debate on S. 744.)

The section on “Youth” unequivocally states that young unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the United States as children “through no fault of their own” and “who know no other place as home”—commonly referred to as “DREAMers”—will have a chance to become legal residents and eventually citizens. This section does not hedge or use obscure language about conferring citizenship on DREAMers, and as a result, I think it’s quite praiseworthy.

Then there’s the section on “Reforms to the Legal Immigration System.” It states in no uncertain terms that the granting of immigrant visas (also known as “green cards”) will shift towards skilled economic immigrants, and away from “extended family members and pure luck.” Again, this is the path that the bipartisan Senate bill took, by creating a new “merit-based” point system for allocating immigrant visas to skilled immigrants and by expanding the employment based immigrant visa categories, while simultaneously eliminating the immigrant visa category for siblings of U.S. citizens (i.e., “extended family members”) and eliminating the Diversity Visa which grants 50,000 immigrant visas via an annual lottery (i.e., what the Standards mean by “pure luck”). When it comes to reforming the green card system, there doesn’t seem to be much daylight between the general direction of the Republican Standards and the Senate bill. Although one key difference is that the Senate bill makes these changes while also creating additional visas for the millions of people who already qualify for green cards but are stuck in lengthy backlogs. The Standards are conspicuously silent about how to remedy those backlogs. And that issue is somewhat related to a deeper, and perhaps more difficult discussion that may not have taken place yet among Republicans, about where to set annual numerical limits on immigrant visas.

The second paragraph of the same section addresses reforms to temporary foreign worker programs. Other than the noting of “concern” for the agricultural industry and that “[i]t is imperative that these temporary workers … do not displace or disadvantage American workers,” it’s very hard to draw any conclusions about what’s being proposed. To some extent, the two legislative proposals that were passed by the House Judiciary Committee last year on agricultural and skilled temporary foreign workers have already staked out the Republican positions on H-2A and H-1B visas. But my guess is there will be plenty of room for amendments if they ever reach the House floor, and furthermore it’s likely that Republicans aren’t even close to wrapping up debate on this issue, since temporary foreign worker programs have historically been one of the most contentious immigration topics to negotiate.

Last but not least, the section titled “Individuals Living Outside the Rule of Law” is where skepticism about these Standards is warranted. This section is about how to deal with the millions of unauthorized immigrants in the country. There are two notable things to point out. First, there will be some form of legal status granted to those unauthorized immigrants who are “willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).” However, this cannot happen until “specific enforcement triggers have been implemented.” What those triggers are and whether they’re realistic is anyone’s guess. They’re likely to include border apprehension metrics and the implementation progress of E-Verify. And what would happen if those triggers and metrics were not reached, is also an open question, as Greg Sargent insightfully pointed out.

It is possible that unauthorized immigrants would get some sort of “probationary status,” one that’s revocable if the specified triggers aren’t met. That’s problematic for a number of reasons, but mostly because unauthorized immigrants will be discouraged from applying for this status and going through background checks, etc., if they know they could lose the status through no fault of their own. And at that point, they’ll have already given the government all of their sensitive information, and DHS can easily figure out where they are and deport them.

Secondly, the section also notes there will be “no special path to citizenship” for unauthorized immigrants. The language leaves open the possibility that the existing pathways to citizenship—meaning with the sponsorship of an employer or the family member of a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident—will remain available to them. This could potentially be a viable way for millions of unauthorized immigrants to eventually become citizens, but could leave millions behind, which is potentially disastrous economically, and even more so in terms of social integration and cohesion. Nevertheless, the Republican Party’s small opening towards allowing unauthorized immigrants to become citizens is a step in the right direction.

As you can probably tell, overall, the Republican proposal is beginning to look a lot like the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill, except of course on the issue of what status to grant unauthorized immigrants. But the preamble to the Standards criticizes the Senate bill, calling it a “massive piece of legislation that few have read and even fewer understand.” That’s nonsense. The Senate immigration bill was passed about 7 months ago—plenty of time for Hill staffers to read it, even if their bosses refuse to. And in terms of understanding it, there are guides out there (like the one I wrote) that explain what’s in the bill and how the bill would  modify current law—doing so in simple terms that are easy to understand—whether you’re someone with no background in law or politics or a legislator who doesn’t like to read legislation.

Nevertheless, today I am optimistic that immigration reform can happen in 2014. But this is only a first step, and a very small one at that. There’s a long way to go before we see any votes on the floor of the House of Representatives, let alone a House-Senate conference committee on immigration.