Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican who was born in Puerto Rico, penned an op/ed in yesterday's Los Angeles Times summarizing what he sees as a conservative vision for comprehensive immigration reform. Labrador worked as an immigration lawyer for 15 years, which makes him uniquely qualified to take a stab at this problem -- especially compared to many of his fellow lawmakers. He begins with a firm pre-condition -- strong, accountable border enforcement before anything else:
The starting place — the trigger for reforming and modernizing our immigration system — must be securing our borders and effectively enforcing our immigration laws before any legal status is granted to those here illegally. Border agencies and local authorities must be given the tools they need to effectively perform their duties. The Obama administration must allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to enforce existing laws and apprehend any undocumented person they encounter, not just those who have committed violent crimes. In addition, the Border Patrol must have access to all border areas, including federally managed scenic lands where motor vehicle use is restricted. The border fences, both virtual and physical, must be completed. However, fences alone will not prevent illegal immigration. Perhaps 35% to 40% of the illegal population entered the U.S. legally and simply never left. That is why border enforcement must be coupled with strict interior enforcement. We must create an effective entry and exit system that can track visa overstays and use a verification system, like E-Verify, to ensure that employers hire only legally authorized workers.
The key phrase there is "before any legal status." Next up, an expanded guest worker program, and a streamlined legal immigration process for highly skilled foreign nationals:
We must also create a robust guest worker program to match willing workers with employers according to flexible free-market forces. In 2006 and 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama and other Democrats sided with the labor unions in an effort to water down such legislation. Reform will not go forward if the Democrats again resist the need to create a guest worker program. At the same time, we must increase the number of visas and green cards available for high-skilled workers. We educate future business leaders and innovators from around the world at U.S. colleges and universities, and then force many who want to stay here to leave after graduation. Instead of creating jobs in the U.S., they return home or immigrate to other countries, where they become our competitors.
Then -- the "final" piece, as he calls it -- comes a path to legal residency, which Labrador stresses does not include an expedited or "special" path to citizenship -- with narrow DREAM-style exemptions:
Finally, after the border is secure and our guest worker and visa programs are modernized, the legislation must address what to do with the people who are here illegally. I know some citizens want to round them all up, but this is not realistic. Instead, we can create an appropriate program to normalize their status. To qualify for such a program, the undocumented must come out of the shadows, register and undergo thorough background checks. They must pay all taxes owed, and pay a fine. They must know English and remain employed and not become a financial burden to American taxpayers. Those who have committed serious crimes or who do not willingly come forward will not be eligible for the program. The legislation should not provide a special pathway to citizenship for the millions who have willfully violated our immigration laws. Those who entered the U.S. as children, through no fault of their own, will be allowed to have a pathway to citizenship.
But those who entered illegally as adults will only be allowed to participate in the new and improved guest worker and visa programs. I am not advocating a two-tiered immigration system or second-class status — those who can become citizens and those who can never become citizens. Anyone who wants to become a naturalized citizen of the United States is welcome to apply. But Congress must not make it any easier for those who entered our country illegally to obtain citizenship. Those who qualify for the new guest worker and visa programs and desire citizenship would be placed at the end of the line behind others immigrating legally. It would be a travesty to treat those who violated our laws better than those who have patiently waited their turn to come to the United States the right way.
Labrador's pre-buttal to the inevitable "two-tier"/"second class citizen" objections to pursuing legal residency (rather than citizenship) is important and well-framed. How his outline will jibe with the 'Gang of Eight's' much-anticipated framework remains to be seen, but it strikes me as cautious, sensible and fair. If there are incompatibilities, which seems quite likely, I'd be interested to hear a substantive public discussion between Labrador and Marco Rubio over the differences. An essential component of any successful plan will be public buy-in and trust. As we discussed yesterday, the American people have abundant cause for skepticism over the federal government's ability to engineer and manage a functional immigration system. Byron York combs through recent polling data and discovers an unsurprising truth: Americans are largely open to a generous reform bill if they can be assured that the border will be secured. How are those assurances playing thus far? Not well.