The comprehensive immigration-reform bill that the Senate will debate throughout June is by no means ideal, lacking fairness for same-sex couples and too onerous on citizenship waiting periods, among other flaws. But even so, it offers a long-delayed pathway to citizenship for many of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and deserves to win approval.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill last month, with strong bipartisan support, by a vote of 13 to 5. It survived a barrage of hostile amendments in committee, but it’s not out of the woods yet. Some Republicans who voted for it, like Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, remain undecided about the final vote. Nay-sayers are well-organized and have vocal support among conservative talk-show hosts on radio and TV.
Opponents have vowed an all-out fight against reform, but their arguments lack the power they once had. They’re shopworn and tend to rely on scare tactics. Unlike 2007, when a reform effort under President Bush collapsed, the public isn’t buying it this time around. Surveys show most Americans support a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.
Why the change? Conventional political wisdom holds that Republicans woke up when their presidential candidate in 2012 lost the Hispanic vote by 44 percentage points. They have to get this right for the sake of their party’s future. Doubtless, the lopsided vote got the GOP’s attention and has given Republicans who support reform some running room.
But there’s more than politics behind the drive for reform. Sound arguments have replaced fear as the ultimate driver of the debate.
The vast majority of undocumented are law-abiding, tax-paying, hard-working individuals who contribute to the betterment of their communities. Aside from the practical impossibility of mass deportations and the obvious unfairness of relegating them to permanent second-class status, there is the issue of earned merit as contained in the bill. Citizenship would require a 13-year wait (too long, but it’s a starting point for debate), payment of fines and penalties, and proof of good behavior.
The young people brought to this country as children, who call themselves “Dreamers” after the DREAM Act — a failed legislative effort to win citizenship for this group — have made a big difference. Their compelling stories have given voice to a portion of the immigrant population largely silent until now.
The most troubling aspect of the proposal as it goes to the floor is the failure to allow U.S. citizens to apply for permanent resident status — a green card — for their same-sex partners. Discriminatory treatment of gays has no place in U.S. law. But the absence of fairness for them should not become the obstacle that dooms immigration reform when so many have fought so hard to get this far.
Sen. Marco Rubio, whose role so far has been crucial, believes stronger border enforcement is the key to victory. He’s right; public support hinges on confidence in secure borders. But a promised floor fight over defining success in border security should not derail a promising bill, which already contains up to $6.5 billion in new money for technology and fencing.
It’s impossible to seal the almost 2,000 miles of border between the United States and Mexico. In the end, neither manmade obstacles nor natural barriers like the sea can stop individuals willing to bet everything to win freedom and a better life. As the Senate debates reform throughout June, lawmakers should bear in mind the human factor behind immigration.