Next Up: Obama to Seek Immigration Overhaul in Single, Giant Bill

Kate Hicks

1/13/2013 1:16:00 PM - Kate Hicks

As President Obama begins his second term, it seems he intends to make good on campaign promises to reform American immigration policy. The New York Times reports today that the president and his fellow Democrats in the Senate are seeking to create a giant omnibus bill that would remake the entire system.

Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats will propose the changes in one comprehensive bill, the officials said, resisting efforts by some Republicans to break the overhaul into smaller pieces — separately addressing young illegal immigrants, migrant farmworkers or highly skilled foreigners — which might be easier for reluctant members of their party to accept. [...]

Mr. Obama is expected to lay out his plan in the coming weeks, perhaps in his State of the Union address early next month, administration officials said. The White House will argue that its solution for illegal immigrants is not an amnesty, as many critics insist, because it would include fines, the payment of back taxes and other hurdles for illegal immigrants who would obtain legal status, the officials said.

The president’s plan would also impose nationwide verification of legal status for all newly hired workers; add visas to relieve backlogs and allow highly skilled immigrants to stay; and create some form of guest-worker program to bring in low-wage immigrants in the future.

There's also a bipartisan coalition, led by Chuck Schumer and Lindsay Graham, along with John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Mike Lee, that's begun working on a similar overhaul bill.

To be sure, the American immigration system needs some comprehensive reform, but clearly, don't understand the wisdom of avoiding massive "fix-all" bills, a la the Affordable Care Act. As Nancy Pelosi famously said, a bill like this is so big you have to pass it just to know what it does. With policy as sensitive and all-encompassing as immigration, it's best to err on the side of caution -- and with our finances in dire straights, it's best to avoid bills that can easily hide pork.

So says Marco Rubio, who also intends to pursue immigration reform, albeit down a different path of the president and his fellows. Although he's met with the aforementioned bipartisan coalition, Rubio instead advocates for four or five niche-issue immigration bills, each dealing with one facet of the extraordinarily complicated topic: low-skill guest worker programs, increased quotas for high-skill workers, border security, employee status checks, and a program to bring the 12 million illegal residents already here into the light of the law. It's this last piece of the puzzle, of course, that has proved to be the most contentious in the immigration battle.

His wholesale fix tries to square—triangulate, if you will—the liberal fringe that seeks broad amnesty for illegal immigrants and the hard right's obsession with closing the door. Mr. Rubio would ease the way for skilled engineers and seasonal farm workers while strengthening border enforcement and immigration laws. As for the undocumented migrants in America today—eight to 12 million or so—he proposes to let them "earn" a working permit and, one day, citizenship. [...]

Politically hardest is the question of the up to 12 million illegals currently here. Mr. Rubio's proposal allows for adults who overstayed their visa or sneaked in to come into the open.

"Here's how I envision it," he says. "They would have to come forward. They would have to undergo a background check." Anyone who committed a serious crime would be deported. "They would be fingerprinted," he continues. "They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they've been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country."

The special regime he envisions is a form of temporary limbo. "Assuming they haven't violated any of the conditions of that status," he says, the newly legalized person could apply for permanent residency, possibly leading to citizenship, after some years—but Mr. Rubio doesn't specify how many years. He says he would also want to ensure that enforcement has improved before opening that gate.

The waiting time for a green card "would have to be long enough to ensure that it's not easier to do it this way than it would be the legal way," he says. "But it can't be indefinite either. I mean it can't be unrealistic, because then you're not really accomplishing anything. It's not good for our country to have people trapped in this status forever. It's been a disaster for Europe."

It'll be interesting to see how the various immigration bills stack up against each other, and who will prevail. Ostensibly, something like what Rubio has proposed -- introducing several pieces of legislation, and tackling each issue individually -- would make the most sense, but in this day and age, the most "bipartisan-looking" bill, not necessarily the sanest, is the one that tends to make it farthest on the floor.