The outline of a comprehensive immigration reform bill (PDF) released April 29 by Senate Democrats will do little to lessen concerns over whether Congress should try to pass such complex legislation in an election year with an already overcrowded congressional calendar. But spurred by Arizona's controversial new immigration law, the proposal has revived a serious congressional debate that has been dormant since the last effort failed in 2007.
What is striking about the outline is not so much the areas of known controversy, but the growing areas of consensus. Securing the borders? The plan calls for a continued build-up of manpower and technology, following five years in which the federal government has already doubled the Border Patrol and reduced by half or more the number of illegal immigrants crossing the southern border. Such proposals would have fit very comfortably in an all-Republican bill.
Workplace enforcement? The plan one-ups the rapidly expanding electronic verification system known as E-Verify and proposes an even more comprehensive scheme, in which employers would face big fines for violation. Compared with even a few years ago, there is stronger support in both parties for cutting off the jobs pipeline that still entices so many illegal migrants.
The Democrats also want passage of the DREAM Act to help children of illegal migrants brought here by their parents, and the AGJobs Act to reform the rules for foreign agricultural workers, two bills that would probably have passed already had they not been linked to comprehensive immigration reform. Attracting high-skilled workers by offering a green card for foreign students who earn graduate degrees in science and engineering from U.S. universities should enjoy broad public and congressional support. With innovation driving the U.S. economy, the importance of maintaining America's attractiveness as a magnet for the world's best and brightest is hard to overstate.
But there is much that will be controversial. For example, replacing the current paper Social Security card with a biometric, fraud proof card that would become the only work authorization document for Americans was denounced by the American Civil Liberties Union as a scheme that would "usher government into the very center of our lives." Plans to create a national identification card did not survive the last big congressional debate on immigration reform in the early 1980s.
The most contentious issue remains what to do about the nearly eleven million unauthorized immigrants already in the United States. The proposal has a number of virtues, in particular the relative simplicity of immediate registration followed by an eight-year period in which they would need to earn a path to citizenship by demonstrating work history, progress in learning English, and payment of penalties. There is nothing in the scheme, however, likely to appease those who have denounced any form of earned legalization as an "amnesty."
The Democratic senators who unveiled the proposal called it a starting point, and acknowledged there was little chance of passage unless Republicans could be brought on board. It should be read in that light--as a serious first effort for reengaging on an issue that is vital to America's future.