Getting our House in Order on Immigration

House Republicans are huddling today in a closed-door meeting to discuss their strategy for immigration reform legislation. The meeting comes almost two weeks after the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. The bill overhauling the immigration system passed by a 68-32 margin (including 14 Republican votes), thanks in part to a late compromise authored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and John Hoeven (R-ND).

Known as the “border surge,” their amendment was put forth as a means to rope in more Republican support in order to pass with a solid margin to give it momentum going to the House.

But the House leadership has vowed to do things their own way. So far, House committees have taken a piecemeal approach, passing bills encompassing interior enforcement, an agricultural guest worker program, an employer verification system, high-skilled immigration, and border security, all of which are covered in the Senate’s bill.

The big question in the House’s approach is what to do with the 11 million residents living in this country without legal status, something the Senate bill addresses with an earned legalization program. Over the last several months, Republicans in the House have hinted at their support—or lack thereof—of such a program. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the chair of the Judiciary Committee which passed four immigration bills so far, argued for no “special pathway,” but is open to legalization, especially for undocumented youth. Others want strict border security measures to be enacted before they are even willing to consider legalization. 

From a purely political perspective, immigration legislation that fails to include some kind of legalization will not pass in the Senate. But beyond the politics, there are important policy reasons to support an earned legalization. 

Legalization yields higher wages for previously unauthorized workers, which in turn increases tax revenue and consumer buying power, and creates more jobs. Once these individuals “come out of the shadows,” they are more inclined to invest in job training and learning English, raising overall productivity.   

There is also a fairness argument for legalization. For years politicians, employers, and consumers have looked the other way as we’ve benefitted from illegal immigration. Getting everyone right with the law is the right thing to do. Over 70 percent of Americans agree, supporting a plan to allow unauthorized residents to earn legal status, and half believe that they should not be required to wait until border security improvements are complete before they can apply.   

But a legalization program without sufficient assurances that we won’t have to do it again in the future is also a non-starter. 

Better than the border surge, the way to prevent another mass legalization program in the future would be to reduce incentives—to immigrants and employers— for illegal immigration.

This means providing legal avenues for the types of immigrant workers that our economy has come to rely upon, implementing a sensible, reliable mechanism for employers to verify the legal work status of potential hires, and strengthening our visa entry/exit system to crack down on overstays. Taken together, these measures would greatly reduce the pressure on the border and the need for increased militarization.  

By reducing the magnet for illegal immigration, they would pave the way for an earned legalization program. Smart border security must be part of reform but without reducing incentives and creating a legalization program, we could become what Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) warns: the “biggest magnet for illegal immigration.”

It’s time to get our immigration house in order. If the House does not develop a plan to address the 11 million unauthorized residents, they will essentially be voting to keep the status quo, which is what got us into this mess in the first place.