Democrats: This Immigration Compromise Looks Pretty Sweet to Us

Posted: Apr 23, 2013 10:24 AM

A few days old, but worth flagging anyway.  As conservative debate over the 'Gang of Eight' proposal begins in earnest, Democrats are reportedly pleasantly surprised by the contents of the legislation:

The Senate’s Gang of Eight delivered an immigration overhaul bill this week that was far more generous to their constituencies than Democrats and Hispanic activists expected. The pre-bill marketing campaign — driven by leaks that seemed to come from Republican negotiators — focused on stringent new border-control measures and a long, difficult path to citizenship. The goal was to minimize conservative opposition by creating a first impression of the bill as a tough solution to the country’s illegal immigration problem. But when Democrats got a look at the 844-page measure, they discovered that their negotiators extracted more concessions than they thought possible. Those include an expansive version of the DREAM Act and subtle but meaningful tradeoffs on all the major pieces of the system, from family reunification to legalization and border security. Democrats are reluctant to sound too positive, fearing that would scare away Republicans. Their official response to the bill has been muted, with one press release after another calling it a starting point that must be improved. Yet that description, while an accurate reflection of their political strategy heading into the debate, understates the extent to which Democrats believe their side made off with more policy victories than it could’ve predicted. 

Why are liberals quietly celebrating?  Policy specifics.  GOP negotiators extracted some concessions, but Democrats engineered a plan that offers a generous and immediate amnesty* [see update] to millions:

Republicans succeeded in making the path to legalization contingent upon the government meeting border security benchmarks, prohibiting undocumented immigrants from accessing federal benefits even as they pay taxes, blocking a provision to allow foreign spouses of same-sex couples to apply for visas, and creating a temporary worker program. But in return, Democrats got what Mary Giovagnoli, a former Kennedy immigration aide and director of the Immigration Policy Center, called an “extremely generous legalization program.” Advocates don’t like the 10-year waiting period for legal permanent status or the provision that prevents immigrants who entered the country after Dec. 31, 2011, from being eligible for legalization. Democratic negotiators sought a cut-off date of at least Dec. 31, 2012. But the $2,000 in fines are much lower than the 2006 and 2007 bills. The employment requirements are more flexible than expected. And border-security requirements aren’t as arbitrary as immigrant advocates expected, allaying fears that they could be used to block the path to citizenship.

Immigrants who have already been deported may apply for legal status from the outside the U.S. if their spouses or children are citizens or green-card holders — a significant concession to advocates upset about hundreds of thousands of deportations on President Barack Obama’s watch. Immigrants barred from gaining the provisional legal status because of a criminal record from long-ago offenses can seek a waiver. The bill contains a far more expansive version of the DREAM Act than Congress has ever considered. Undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children would have to wait only five years to receive a green card, and they could immediately apply for citizenship. By contrast, a 2010 bill that nearly passed the Senate included a 16-year path to citizenship and barred anyone older than 30 from applying. There is no age cap in the Gang of Eight bill.  

Placing my cards on the table: I'm in favor of immigration reform, and I want to trust Marco Rubio and others on these issues.  But implementing bad policy could be worse than doing nothing, and I'm generally concerned that this package will prove to be unbalanced, ineffectual, and unenforceable.  This assessment stems from questions about the border enforcement "triggers" and additional requirements, some of which seem hopelessly toothless.  The Examiner's Byron York combed through the bill itself and discovered that several of the toughest-sounding measures aren't even in the legislative language:

It sounded tough, intended to convince skeptical conservatives that reform would be based on stringent border security. But as it turns out, the structure Gang sources described is simply not in the bill. The bill requires that the head of the Government Accountability Office then review the report to determine whether the Commission’s recommendations are likely to work and what they will cost. And then — the process stops. “The Commission shall terminate 30 days after the date on which the report is submitted,” says the bill. There is nothing about the Commission going from “being an advisory panel to a policy-making one.” The strict trigger that Gang sources advertised as being in the bill just isn’t there. Finally, even after the bill was released, a leading Gang member, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, stressed that the Commission would not be a Washington-centric panel, the kind that are so common and so ineffective that they are the butt of jokes...The bill specifies that the Commission will have ten members. Two will be appointed by the president. One will be chosen by the Majority Leader of the Senate, and another by the Minority Leader. (Formally, both will be appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate.) Another one will be chosen by the Speaker of the House and one by the House Minority Leader. And the other four, one from each border state — California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas — will either be the governor of the state or someone the governor designates. So that is six Washington-based appointments and four border state appointments, which may or may not be the border state governors.

Not a single one of these drawbacks is political in nature, although I harbor worries on that front, too.  The fact that the Left is so pleased with this bill raises red flags in the first place, and I thought Rush asked pertinent questions in his discussion with Rubio last week.  Many conservatives are also put off by the increasingly negative and judgmental tone being adopted by Republican 'gang' supporters.  People who oppose amnesty aren't ipso facto racists.  Hell, many of us are willing to accept some amnesty path so long as the feds finally get serious about protecting the border and American sovereignty.  At the moment, they are not.  It's that simple.  Rubio's right that the status quo is effectively tantamount to a continuous amnesty, and that something must be done; the current system is unfair to US citizens, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants alike.  But bullying and preening isn't the way to win over conservative hearts and minds.  The bipartisan proposal as currently constituted is, on balance, unacceptable.  There are some positive elements, and negotiators on both sides should be commended for attempting to tackle a politically risky problem.  Up next is the Senate amendment process, which will be crucial.  Unless Republicans can secure more robust and meaningful border enforcement mechanisms, the underlying bill may be in real trouble.  Republicans have 45 Senators and a House majority to significantly improve this bill.  Republican backers, to their credit, have pledged support for a lengthy and thorough amendment process.  Republicans shouldn't use their numbers to mindlessly obstruct any progress, but they should flex their muscles to tug the law in a more productive direction.

*UPDATE* - Rubio Press Secretary Alex Conant emails to correct my oversimplification on this point:

Nobody receives temporary legal status until the first 2 triggers are met & we begin securing the border – probably in 6 months. After that, illegals do not get permanent status for 10 years – and only then if we’ve secured our borders & implemented the toughest immigration enforcement in US history.  

My wording was imprecise.  "Immediate amnesty" isn't a fair characterization because, as Conant notes, two triggers must be met before illegal immigrants can begin applying for legal status.  As I've written previously, though, the first two layers aren't particularly onerous; millions become eligible for legal status after two plans are in place.  That's not enforcement.  It's a plan for enforcement.  We are working on a sit-down interview with Sen. Rubio to address some of conservative concerns about his bill.