Immigration reform at last but Senate bill still flawed

Kerby Neill, co-author of Binding Their Wounds: America's Assault on Its Veterans.
Kerby Neill, co-author of Binding Their Wounds: America's Assault on Its Veterans.

In a welcome show of bipartisanship, we have an immigration reform bill in the U.S. Senate. That our immigration system is broken is generally acknowledged, but reform efforts were stuck until the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential election went heavily Democratic, creating the atmosphere for the current legislation. Republicans and Democrats had tended to emphasize system breaks in different places.

For many Republicans the border was broken and porous, immigration enforcement was lax and undocumented workers were taking American jobs. Democrats stressed our need for workers filling low-salaried and less-desirable jobs, and acknowledged that U.S. trade policies with Mexico and support for political violence in Central America drove many Latinos to leave their homes and risk their lives for better prospects in the United States.

Senate Bill 744 reflects the concerns of both political parties and seeks to be sensitive to the needs of immigrant families without offering an easy amnesty for entering the U.S. illegally. Addressing both sides of the debate about what was broken, the bill opens with calls to further seal and fortify our southern border and makes many actions that might regularize the status of undocumented immigrants dependent upon verifying that we have achieved border security.

A commission including border-state governors is responsible for this verification and a healthy $6.5 billion is allocated to increased security. It seems unlikely that a border-state commission will certify the border as secure until this border job bonanza has run its course.

Such a trigger is too vague for legislation that affects so many potential citizens. The legislation would do better to provide a reasonable start time with an option for the commission to certify the border as secure earlier, if possible. Complete border security is also a fiction. As policy analyst Sameer Dossani wrote several years ago, "There is no wall high enough or strong enough to hold back the millions of people our foreign policy has helped condemn to poverty."

The legislation includes the critical provisions of the previously developed Dream Act that offers a five-year path to citizenship for persons brought to the U.S. as children or young teens who have come of age, educationally, culturally and civically in the United States.

I am still haunted by a meeting I had with the bright, typically American young woman who was valedictorian of her 2003 Northern Kentucky high school class, but who has remained in legal limbo for a decade because she was seven years old when she and her parents entered the U.S. without documents. The Senate bill also allows a means of re-entry for adults deported only for being undocumented and who left spouses and children here.

Recognizing that the bill addresses the status of persons who entered illegally or overstayed time limits on their visa, SB 744 includes significant fines and fees for those seeking legal status and an ultimate path to citizenship. The 13-year time frame for qualified immigrants to attain citizenship, however, is too long, especially with a clock that doesn't start ticking until border security is "verified."

Such a wait doesn't truly welcome potential fellow citizens — like those recordings that urge us, "please stay on the line, your call is important to us," we have serious doubts when the wait is too long. Several changes might address this concern. The overall wait time might be reduced, and a mechanism might be created for more rapid progress for well qualified immigrants.

There is already a potential mechanism in the legislation to facilitate this second objective. The bill's authors wisely created a Comprehensive Immigration Reform Trust Fund to receive funds and fines collected from immigrant applicants to implement this legislation. They also created a grant program using these funds to encourage public and private non-profit organizations to assist the millions of eligible immigrants in completing their applications.

This is critical because the two-year window during which so many must apply is probably too short. Such assistance might also be extended to help a percentage of most-qualified immigrants (maybe 30 percent to 40 percent) to proceed on a more rapid track to citizenship. This could utilize the point system established by the legislation to identify well-qualified immigrants and prevent a massive processing log-jam at the end of a long waiting period.