The prospect of comprehensive immigration reform appears to be gaining momentum. On January 28, a bipartisan group of eight senators announced a broad proposal for immigration reform. Meanwhile, a similar bipartisan effort is underway in the House and, as this issue was going to press, it was expected that President Obama would announce his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform.

The Senate Proposal

The Senate proposal has four basic elements: (1) a path to legalization for illegal immigrants; (2) increased border security; (3) increased employer verification requirements; and (4) increased employment-based immigration. Illegal immigrants would pay monetary penalties to legalize but would not be eligible for permanent resident status until other enforcement-related measures are in place (such as increased border security).

The proposal would also increase certain types of employment-based immigration and allow individuals who have an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics from a U.S. university to obtain permanent resident status. The proposal includes increased fines and criminal penalties for employers that knowingly employ unauthorized workers.

Highlights of the proposal include:

  • Increased border security (additional unmanned drones, surveillance equipment, and border agents);
  • Entry-exit system to monitor visa overstays;
  • A commission to provide a recommendation as to whether increased border security measures have been completed;
  • A government registry for illegal immigrants who must pass background checks, pay fines, and back taxes in order to obtain temporary legal status (when increased border security measures are completed they can apply for permanent resident status behind others who have already applied);
  • A quicker path to legalization for foreign nationals that were brought to the United States as children;
  • A reduction in the immigrant visa backlogs for both family-based and employment-based immigration;
  • Permanent resident status for individuals who have an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics from U.S. universities;
  • Electronic verification of employment authorization and identity for new hires;
  • Increased fines and criminal penalties for employers that knowingly employ unauthorized workers;
  • Increased employment-based immigration where it can be demonstrated that employment of a foreign national would not displace U.S. workers;
  • Creation of an agricultural worker program;
  • Increased or decreased immigration for lower-skilled workers as needed depending on economic conditions; and
  • Permanent resident status for long-term employees who have contributed to the community and to the workplace.

Reaction from the White House

Initial reaction from the White House to the Senate’s proposal has been positive; and with a similar bipartisan effort underway in the House, the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform seems a possibility. President Obama has made comprehensive immigration reform a priority, referencing the idea in recent speeches including his inaugural address.

With approximately 70 percent of Latinos voting for Obama in the past election, Republicans appear to have become more receptive to a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws. Latinos accounted for approximately 11 percent of the electorate in 2012 (up from eight percent in 2008) and this community has been especially important in key swing states, such as Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. More than two-thirds of exit polls were in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.

The perception is that Republicans have alienated the Latino community, the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, on the immigration issue. Immigration policy, largely overlooked during President Obama’s first term, has now re-emerged as a key issue as Republicans scurry to rebound from their election performance, motivated by the need to repair the electoral damage through comprehensive immigration reform.

The fact that Latinos cast significantly fewer votes for Mitt Romney than they had for previous Republican presidential candidates has led to an ostensible shift in the GOP’s position on immigration, forcing Republicans to reconsider their opposition to reform. In fact, following the election, many Republican Congressional Leaders (including House Speaker John Boehner), well aware of the election results, the polls, and demographic trends, have stepped forward to show support for comprehensive immigration reform.

However, immigration reform is a highly divisive issue and could face significant opposition in Congress as did the last attempt in 2007, which failed.