Four years ago, it was the stimulus package and the health care bill. Now, it’s immigration reform. Recent proposals from the Senate and the president may make immigration reform the first big legislative push of Barack Obama’s next four years.
A bipartisan committee of eight senators put out a framework for an immigration reform bill Jan. 28. Among other things, the proposal includes a system to provide undocumented immigrants currently in the United States a way to obtain “probationary legal status” after completing a background check and paying various fines and taxes. To receive a green card, these individuals would complete mandatory English and civics courses, show a history of employment and undergo further background checks.
“It’s not guaranteed just because there’s bipartisan and bicameral support, but it’s nonetheless a sign that something is going to happen,” said Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science at Elon University. “Even more telling is that the president is also behind it and it has some bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.”
Obama offered another proposal that focuses on creating paths to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented workers in the United States. The proposal aims to crack down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants and implement better immigration regulations. The proposed legislation includes a provision to give green cards to foreign students who complete a master’s degree or Ph.D. in math, science, engineering or technology at an American university.
“If you open up any macroeconomic textbook, it’s likely to say that one of the best ways to stimulate the economy is to invest in human capital,” said Kenneth Fernandez, assistant professor of political science. “So if people are being trained here and we’re not letting them stay, it seems to be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Sophomore Nicole Payne spoke about the way immigration is handled by both political parties at Elon’s Debating the Issues forum last year. She argued Obama and Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, “seemed more interested in either their number of votes or propping up the current system than about the people who are actually involved.”
With this new push for legislative action, Payne said she is slightly optimistic.
“I think it is wonderful that both parties have a hand in the solution,” she said. “Unfortunately, it took our president a long time to realize that, and in the process more people than ever before were deported last year under his watch.”
According to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, 400,000 people were deported in 2011, compared to less than 120,000 a decade earlier. Obama has attributed this to increased border security, which has allowed ICE to deport undocumented immigrants who may have only been in the country for a short period of time.
While the president’s and the Senate’s proposals overlap on a majority of key issues, Obama disagrees with the Senate’s border security proposal. The bill does not allow immigrants to pursue legal status until the border is secured.
“You could imagine some group of elected officials or non-elected officials would say, ‘No, it’s not secure yet,’ or, ‘It’s never secure,’” Fernandez said. “Obama wants a much more clear pathway to citizenship that isn’t based on something that’s really vague.”
The House has yet to work on the bill, which is likely to change as it goes through the legislative process.
“Whatever goes through at this point is likely to be very different,” Husser said.
Obama claimed 70 to 75 percent of the Latino vote in the 2012 election, and the bipartisan work on crafting immigration reform may be part of a larger Republican effort to garner Latino supporters, according to Husser.
“This isn’t in general for every Republican leader in the country, but for some, they have hopefully pointed out that the Republican party has to be more than the party of white men,” Husser said. “The Republican party was, and is still, strong among certain demographics, but its weakest is among non-whites and it makes them electorally vulnerable in the long term.”
Conservatives have generally supported cutting immigrant benefits, implementing voter ID legislation that disproportionately affects minorities and changing the 14th Amendment to end citizenship at birth. Fernandez said Republicans have hurt their relationship with Latino constituencies with these proposals.
“I think they realize that they’re not going to win certain elections or certain regions unless they change the rhetoric and start supporting some policies that this constituency seems to find important,” he said.