Slowly but surely the biggest political story of 2013 is taking shape: passage of comprehensive immigration reform. A visit to Sacramento last week by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the third ranking House Republican, told us a lot about what the final product will look like.
Immigration reform has five working parts, and getting them all lined up is not easy. There is legalization of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country. But as McCarthy and other Republicans have signaled, that issue is now settled: immigration reform will allow these 11 million to come out from the shadows, get jobs, and stay in America. It will also allow them to obtain drivers licenses, insist that they be properly insured; in other words, have the rights and duties of legal residents.
A guest worker program is also essential for immigration reform; in the past it failed because of union opposition and congressional foot dragging. But this time labor and business are working together on an acceptable guest worker program. It is proving to be a major incentive for agriculture and business to get behind reform; serious shortages in agricultural and low skilled labor, not only in California but across the country, seem to have convinced all but the most recalcitrant that this is necessary.
The third working part is the proposal for more high skilled visas. We now educate the best and brightest from overseas in our colleges and universities, and then force them to go home because we do not provide enough visas. Some 40 percent of the illegal population in the country now is made up of people who overstayed their visas. America competes in a global economy and additional visas for high skilled workers are vital for our own competitiveness.
The fourth of the working parts is border security but its success depends on the first three. A guest worker program will allow farm laborers to move back and forth across the border, as they did for decades, and that in itself will assist with border security. Additional high skilled visas will reduce the number of people who illegally overstay their current visas. Finally, it will do little good to make legal the 11 million illegals here today if we turn around the just invite another 11 million to cross the border. Fortunately that is less likely these days. The Mexican economy is growing, birthrates are down, and immigration reform can provide a safe and legal way for workers to cross the border.
Speaking to the Sacramento Press Club on Friday, Rep. McCarthy pretty much said these are the elements going into a bipartisan immigration reform proposal still under wraps in the House of Representatives. The bipartisan Senate working group has endorsed all these elements. According to the Senate plan (and probably the final bill) in order for immigrants to become legal they will need to learn English, pay any back taxes, and undergo various background checks to make sure they have not committed a crime. Only then will they be qualified for permanent legal status.
But there is one more working part, and it is the tough one: a path to citizenship.
The Senate agreement allows citizenship for currently illegal immigrants but only after the border is secured and President Obama has said that they must go the end of the citizenship line. They could not immediately apply for a green card, and so the path to citizenship would be long indeed. They would have to wait in line, perhaps for years, behind everyone else who has applied before them. That can mean years before citizenship is granted.
It looks as though the House version may not have a citizenship pathway, at least not initially. But as a practical matter, this is an issue that should be finessed and should not become a non-negotiable demand to kill reform. A path to citizenship is more likely for illegal immigrants brought here as children and who now quality for the education benefits under the DREAM Act legislation. The consensus seems to be that they would need to meet a strict set of criteria, including graduating from high school or serving in the military in order to qualify for citizenship.
So immigration reform is coming, and citizenship or not it will be a dramatic change. Democrats have promised it to Latino groups that have provided huge Democratic wins. Republicans need it to begin a conversation with Latino voters who have caused one Republican defeat after another, especially here in California. The politics are all aligned, this is going to happen.