‘Gang of 8’ Immigration Bill is Practical, But Far From Ideal

Guest Editorial:
Ponte Al Día

If there are any winners in the immigration reforms set out by the bipartisan Senate “Gang of 8” in the 844-page bill they released Tuesday night, it would have to be big business — which will see a significant increase in visas allotted to high-skilled workers and a new system of temporary visas for agricultural workers and low-skill laborers — and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — which not only is entrusted with all aspects of border security but gets a hefty chunk of the bill’s $17 billion price tag to do it.

The bill satisfies few on the left or the right. Republican Rep. Lamar Smith has already slammed the legislation, and hours after the bill was released anti-immigration activists were already protesting outside Sen. Marco Rubio’s office. The conservative Republican and Tea Party favorite quickly released a statement saying the legislation will implement the toughest border security and immigration law enforcement in U.S. history before “a single” undocumented immigrant is able to apply for permanent residence in the U.S.

And that is one of the concessions of the bill that concerns immigration advocates. The bill requires DHS to submit (within six months) a “Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy” to achieve the agreed effectiveness rate (90 percent of entries at high risk border sections are apprehended or turned back). Presumably the enhanced security measures would include double-layer fencing, use of unmanned drones and deployment of thousands of new border patrol agents. No undocumented immigrant already resident in the U.S. will be able to file for registered provisional status until this security strategy is approved.

After that, provided the undocumented immigrant has a clean legal record, can pay a $500 fee and the assessed taxes, he or she can register for the provisional status (which does not permit access to any of the benefits of permanent residency but does prevent summary deportation).

Provisional status can be renewed after six years, with payment of another fee. After 10 years, those with provisional status should be able to pay a $1,000 penalty and apply for permanent resident status, which would not be accorded until all existing family and employment green cards have cleared the system.

All of which means undocumented immigrants would have close to a 15 year wait for the possibility of permanent resident status. (DREAM-Act eligible young immigrants and agricultural workers would have an expedited 5-year wait until they can apply for permanent residence.)

And that’s in the ideal.

If the DHS were unable to complete the security strategy to Congress’ satisfaction within the allotted 180-day period, however, a “Southern Border Security Commission” would be appointed (consisting of the governors of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and border security experts designated by the President, the Speaker of the House, the House minority leader, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Senate Minority leader) and registry for provisional status would start only after this body could agree on a security strategy for the border. Right now that would mean Jan Brewer, Rick Perry, Susana Martinez and Jerry Brown would play a huge part in whether undocumented immigrants ever see the possibility of a green card.

The Gang of 8’s bill has satisfied neither LGBT advocates (it does not include same-sex spouses in family visas) nor faith-based advocates (who decry the exclusion of siblings and adult children). But the switch from family-reunification priority to skills-based merit visas fits the Gang of 8‘s materialistic approach to reforming immigration. There are benefits to extending the length of time undocumented immigrants stay at provisional status — namely, they continue to generate revenue (rent, food, sales tax and automatic payments into social security, among others) without any access to social security benefits, or government-assisted health care or educational aid. Moreover, the fees, penalties and back taxes to be levied on the road to a green card, no less citizenship, would provide a revenue stream of its own.

Low-skill guest workers also generate income for the municipalities that host them, and under this plan (which creates a new bureau to administrate the W-visas) they would conveniently be sent home after a three-year stint.

In many ways, the practical proposals in the bill are fitted to what we’ve learned from Georgia, Alabama and Arizona: economies are devastated when we institute punitive immigration measures.

But the Gang of 8’s approach is hard to love. And the message it projects couldn’t be more different than the one we are fond of quoting from the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty. No huddled masses for us, thanks, unless they’re temporary and go home after three years. And breathing free? That’s got to wait another 15 years.