The Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives has issued a statement of principles outlining its vision for immigration reform. There is significant overlap with many aspects of the U.S. Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill passed in June 2013. This common ground has revived hope that it may be possible to enact compromise immigration reform legislation in 2014. The primary issue of disagreement appears to be how persons in the U.S. without authorization will be treated. The Senate bill provides legalization and a path to U.S. citizenship. The Republican principles would allow for legalization but not a special path to citizenship.
The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June 2013 (see our legal update). House leadership has said all along that the House will not consider the comprehensive Senate bill. House committees have passed a series of targeted bills addressing specific aspects of immigration reform (see our legal update). A common view held that immigration reform could not be enacted in 2014 because it is an election year; the window for legislation was 2013. Hope for legislation waned as 2013 ended without action.
But in recent weeks, there have been indications that the GOP House leadership does want to try to enact immigration reform. Speaker John Boehner hired a leading Republican policy advisor who had been deeply involved in previous attempts to enact immigration reform. On January 30, 2014, the House Republican leadership issued the following Standards for Immigration Reform outlining some elements of immigration reform that they will require and others that they will not accept:
Standards for Immigration Reform
Our nation's immigration system is broken and our laws are not being enforced. Washington's failure to fix them is hurting our economy and jeopardizing our national security. The overriding purpose of our immigration system is to promote and further America's national interests and that is not the case today. The serious problems in our immigration system must be solved, and we are committed to working in a bipartisan manner to solve them. But they cannot be solved with a single, massive piece of legislation that few have read and even fewer understand, and therefore, we will not go to a conference with the Senate's immigration bill. The problems in our immigration system must be solved through a step-by-step, common-sense approach that starts with securing our country's borders, enforcing our laws, and implementing robust enforcement measures. These are the principles guiding us in that effort.
Border Security and Interior Enforcement Must Come First
It is the fundamental duty of any government to secure its borders, and the United States is failing in this mission. We must secure our borders now and verify that they are secure. In addition, we must ensure now that when immigration reform is enacted, there will be a zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future. Faced with a consistent pattern of administrations of both parties only selectively enforcing our nation's immigration laws, we must enact reform that ensures that a President cannot unilaterally stop immigration enforcement.
Implement Entry-Exit Visa Tracking System
A fully functioning Entry-Exit system has been mandated by eight separate statutes over the last 17 years. At least three of these laws call for this system to be biometric, using technology to verify identity and prevent fraud. We must implement this system so we can identify and track down visitors who abuse our laws.
Employment Verification and Workplace Enforcement
In the 21st century it is unacceptable that the majority of employees have their work eligibility verified through a paper based system wrought with fraud. It is past time for this country to fully implement a workable electronic employment verification system.
Reforms to the Legal Immigration System
For far too long, the United States has emphasized extended family members and pure luck over employment-based immigration. This is inconsistent with nearly every other developed country. Every year thousands of foreign nationals pursue degrees at America's colleges and universities, particularly in high skilled fields. Many of them want to use their expertise in U.S. industries that will spur economic growth and create jobs for Americans. When visas aren't available, we end up exporting this labor and ingenuity to other countries. Visa and green card allocations need to reflect the needs of employers and the desire for these exceptional individuals to help grow our economy.
The goal of any temporary worker program should be to address the economic needs of the country and to strengthen our national security by allowing for realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States. Of particular concern are the needs of the agricultural industry, among others. It is imperative that these temporary workers are able to meet the economic needs of the country and do not displace or disadvantage American workers.
One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own, those who know no other place as home. For those who meet certain eligibility standards, and serve honorably in our military or attain a college degree, we will do just that.
Individuals Living Outside the Rule of Law
Our national and economic security depend on requiring people who are living and working here illegally to come forward and get right with the law. There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation's immigration laws – that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law. Rather, these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits). Criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements will not be eligible for this program. Finally, none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.
Many of these elements are included in the bills that have passed House committees, but more bills will be required in the House to incorporate all elements. As noted, the legalization issue will be a prime point of contention. Many immigration advocates are opposed to the idea that there could be a permanent class of residents in the U.S. who are never able to become U.S. citizens. But polls of immigrant groups suggest that for many of them, their primary focus is on attaining legal status and avoiding deportation now, not on gaining citizenship in the distant future.
Of course, what matters are the details of the specific legislation, so it remains to be seen whether sufficient agreement can be reached on all issues to enact compromise legislation. It will likely be at least summer 2014 before any legislation could be passed.