Immigration reform

National effort gains long-needed momentum

The factors that have finally aligned to make comprehensive immigration reform a possibility at the national level are a mix of politics and pragmatics. Those ingredients are both present in a proposal released this week by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators who have been wrangling over immigration reform for the last several months. The result is a four-prong package that would simultaneously increase border security, offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, establish an effective verification system for employers and improve the process for allowing workers to enter the country legally in the future. It is a balanced proposal that would vastly improve the immigration system.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is one of the gang members and has been an active advocate for immigration reform, in part because of Colorado’s experience with immigration issues.

“I want to thank the people in Colorado who told me about how the broken immigration system is affecting their lives and their work,” Bennet said at a news conference Thursday. “The peach growers on the Western Slope ... the cattle ranchers on the Eastern Plains, the people working in our high-tech fields, the people that were the DREAM-ers when I was superintendent of the Denver Public Schools.”

That range is reflective of the nationwide immigration landscape, and finding a workable way to both enforce the law and welcome new citizens to the country – particularly those who contribute meaningfully to the U.S. economy and community – is, as Bennet says, reflective of “incredibly essentially American ideas.” The package unveiled Thursday focuses on those ideas by “creating a tough but fair path to citizenship” for current undocumented immigrants – a notion that hinges on both increased border security as well as a procedural regimen that would include a background check, fines, back taxes and a probationary period during which immigrants would be required to demonstrate their employment history, as well as learn English and civics. These are reasonable requirements that, if filled, would produce citizens who add significant value to U.S. society.

The reforms would also take a long view of the immigration system, improving it so as to attract the “best and brightest” immigrants, focusing on high-level professionals in science, technology, engineering and math. Those with master’s or doctoral degrees earned from an American university in such fields would be given a green card. The proposal rightly justifies this tenet by saying, “It makes no sense to educate the world’s future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country at the moment they are most able to contribute to our economy.”

The proposal would allow for a program that welcomes lower-skilled workers to fill necessary agricultural industry and other positions where American workers are unavailable. The measure would protect both employers and their immigrant employees from exploitation, either by their bosses or by human traffickers. This is a welcome change that can dramatically improve working conditions as well as dangerous conditions associated with illegal border crossings.

The politics surrounding the Gang of Eight’s proposal will make its passage a challenge. Partisanship and gridlock have eased only slightly since the November election that made clear the importance of Hispanic voters to all political parties. That clarity gave momentum to the bipartisan proposal being crafted. Whether it will be sufficient to move the reform package through Congress is an open question. What is settled, though, is the need for such action. The proposal is a meaningful start.