Immigration reform takes center stage

Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum
Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum

Gun control is dead. Long live immigration reform.

Yes, gun control, which was watered down to the point of only being an expanded criminal backgrounds check system, died a quick death Wednesday on the U.S. Senate floor after a five-month reign as a hot-button issue of the moment since the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.

Now, we’ll see if immigration reform can sit on the congressional throne with a legitimate chance of becoming law.

The so-called “Gang of Eight” of four Republican and four Democratic U.S. senators on Thursday publicly rolled out their immigration plan, which involves cracking down on Mexican border security, offering a path to citizenship after more than 10 years of paying fines and taxes, and expanding guest worker programs in areas ranging from the sciences to agriculture.

But the proposal also faces immediate concerns and opposition. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was quick to link the issue to the Boston Marathon bombings by noting the suspects were foreign-born but living in the country legally. He said it is important to ensure “those who would do us harm do not receive benefits under the immigration laws.”

While immigration reform carries more bipartisan support than gun control, many conservatives refuse to seriously consider anything but focusing only on securing the nation’s borders first. The word “comprehensive” reform is a nonstarter.

In fact, Republican U.S. Sens. David Vitter, of Louisiana, and Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, had a news conference to make just that point 15 minutes before the Gang of Eight news conference was scheduled to begin.

“It’s an immediate amnesty with promises of enforcement,” Vitter said. “We’ve tried that model before and it’s failed miserably before.”

The buzz phrase of “immediate amnesty” is what threatens to kill immigration reform before it can really get off the ground with conservative pundits, radio talk show hosts and more.

While the proposed legislation does not make citizens out of the roughly 11 million people living in the country illegally, it does allow them to obtain a legal status that would keep them from being deported. After about six months of the bill becoming law, many of the 11 million could obtain “registered provisional immigrant status” if they have lived in the country continuously since before 2012.

They must pass criminal background checks to receive the status and pay a $500 fine. The status allows them to live and work legally in the country but without receiving federal benefits. After 10 years in provisional status, immigrants can seek a green card and eventually apply for citizenship if they are up-to-date on their income taxes and pay a $1,000 fine. They also must meet work requirements and learn English.

The plan is expected to face tougher sledding in the House if it passes the Senate.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said he is concerned about anything that involves “amnesty,” although he backs parts of the plan like increased border security and more work visas for high-skilled foreign workers. “We need to secure the border first,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman agreed. “I’m not for just complete amnesty,” he said. “My biggest concern is we’re not enforcing the border laws now.”

Even those such as U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, who wants comprehensive immigration reform, have major concerns, but for somewhat different reasons.

Richmond fears the aspect of the proposal that does away with the government’s Diversity Visa Lottery Program, which randomly awards 55,000 visas to immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States, so that more visas can be awarded for employment and merit ties.

As for border security, well, the proposal just doesn’t focus only on border security. The bill requires the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to develop a border-security plan within six months that will allow for the use of automated drones, about 3,500 new Customs agents, additional border fencing and more manpower from the National Guard.

The legislation creates goals of 100 percent surveillance of the Mexican border and to catch or turn back 90 percent of those attempting to cross illegally. Whether that’s good enough, we shall see.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.