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Up Front

Defining Immigration Reform

Audrey Singer

Immigration reform keeps moving forward in the Senate. Today, floor debate began on  S.744, ahead of a key test vote scheduled for next week.

Amid the blow by blow and procedural updates on the issue, following the vicissitudes of the immigration reform debate can be overwhelming. That’s why shortcuts to define the players in this debate are common. But they can also be misleading because they over-simplify a complex issue.

One such media shortcut pits “anti-reformers” against “pro-reformers.” At a time when the abiding refrain is “the immigration system is broken and we need to fix it,” it is reasonable to ask, what exactly is immigration reform? And is anyone really against fixing our broken system?

For the “anti-reformers,” what it really comes down to is that they are against “amnesty,” which itself is polarizing shorthand for opposition to the legalization of undocumented immigrants. Here the argument is that immigrants should not be “rewarded” for violating the law. The main hindrance to moving forward for the anti-reform group is that they need reassurance that large-scale illegal immigration (and thus the need for another “amnesty”) will not be repeated.

In the latest congressional hullabaloo, senators like Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and John Cornyn (R-TX) express their willingness to move forward with a legalization program only if stringent enforcement metrics are met. At face value, this may sound like a good plan; however, the proposed metrics are likely unattainable and will thus never trigger a legalization program. Provisions for legalization with a path to citizenship without a near-sealing of the border make this group most uncomfortable.

 “Anti-reformers” are threatening to derail the bill over this very issue. And although they depart from “pro-reformers” in their insistence that enforcement should take precedence over legalization, the “anti-reformers” are not necessarily against the other major facets included in the Senate’s immigration bill, like the proposed changes to various immigrant worker visa programs.

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“Pro-reformers,” presumably the senators who voted for S.744 in committee and their allies, are in favor of the full package of reforms including enforcement, legalization, and alterations to both permanent and temporary admissions programs. The shorthand here is that these reformers want a comprehensive set of policy changes that, in theory, work together to keep out unwanted immigrants while bringing in those we prefer. What makes this group uncomfortable is the possibility that Congress will turn to the adoption of separate bills that address discrete issues related to enforcement and future admissions, diluting the chances of getting a legalization program accomplished. 

The newest wrinkle in the “pro-reform” camp is that the leading Republican voice and supporter of the Senate bill, Marco Rubio, has been huddling with the more conservative House leadership who insist on stronger enforcement provisions. These Republicans are staunchly in the “anti-reformer” camp, claiming they know the hard right turn is the only way they can pass an immigration bill.

So when we speak of anti- and pro-reformers, it is not a perfect fit. Both sides agree that the immigration system needs an overhaul. They cross party lines and chambers. They change positions sometimes.  And it’s guaranteed that not a single member of Congress likes all of the proposals on the table at this point, nor does a single member disagree with all of them either. But we are not yet at an impasse.

What each member of Congress should keep in mind is whether changing immigration policy now is a better choice than sticking with the status quo. 

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