Immigration Reform 2013: With One Hurdle Passed, the Bill's Future Is Still Uncertain


After years of operating under a broken system, Congress has successfully produced a comprehensive, effective plan to reform immigration in a surprisingly politically feasible manner. President Obama delivered a speech Tuesday morning that wholeheartedly endorsed this most recent congressional effort to advance immigration reform. Later in the day, the Senate voted by an overwhelming margin to begin discussing the bipartisan immigration bill recently pushed through the Judiciary Committee that is just now arriving to the Senate floor.

In the early stages of the debate, it is apparent that Republicans emerged most critical of the bill, and for easily anticipated reasons. The bill currently includes a grand bargain of sorts: Once border security is improved as per Republican request, Democrats get their much-desired path to citizenship for America’s 11 million illegal immigrants. Additionally, several provisions are included that streamline legal immigration. To name a few, the cap on H-1B visas is raised substantially and backlogs for merit-based visas will be cleared.

Yet Republican senators have argued, like John Cornyn (R-Texas) did in his caustic RESULTS amendment, that border-security measures included in the bill are not stringent enough. As a whole, this amendment is self-defeating and hyper-political. Rather than simply voting against the bill and appearing passive to his constituents, Senator Cornyn chose to include entirely unreasonable demands in his amendment that showcase the “strength” of his conservative views.

For example, Cornyn's amendment requires that before the path to citizenship is granted, the DHS must have 100% situational awareness of every border crossing at every segment of the southern border as well as a fully implemented biometric security program at every airport and seaport, something we have been trying to accomplish since 9/11. Acting as a poison pill, if the amendment passes, Democrats will be much more reluctant to support the bill, while if it fails, Republicans will be pressured to side with Cornyn’s extreme stance and again vote against the bill.

Even without Cornyn’s amendment, the “Gang of Eight” bill sacrifices too many resources to wasteful bulking up of border security. What it fails to consider is the motive behind illegal immigration in the first place: a failing legal immigration system. With the reforms already included that work to provide a path to citizenship and reform our legal immigration system, immigrants will likely choose the legal option over the illegal, more dangerous one. Of course, attempts at illegal immigration will never subside altogether, and for this reason, our government currently spends $18 billion dollars a year on immigration enforcement.

As the influential Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) explained in an op-ed piece, the bill currently gives weight to both Republican and Democratic priorities. While a path to citizenship is granted, it is also fairly long and arduous, taking up to 10 years to grant with various fines and penalties. While steps are taken to improve border security, these steps are incremental and progressive. To me, despite seemingly wasteful spending on border protection, this latest attempt at immigration reform strikes a balance between common-sense reform and political feasibility.

While the last immigration overhaul bill failed at precisely this vote only six years ago, a more welcoming congressional response this time around is expected for the “Gang of Eight,” the four democrats and four republicans that sponsor the bill. At a time when congressional approval is at an historical low, seeing to fruition such meaningful change would dramatically enhance the image of Congress in the eyes of the public. The bill has mustered well over the 60 votes needed to begin debate, yet clearing the Senate altogether will prove to be difficult (though certainly within the realm of possibility).

On the flip side, the bill in its current form is unlikely to pass the House, given its Republican majority, and in the following months, more constructive yet conservative amendments will surely ensue. In the coming weeks, the prerogative of the “Gang of Eight” will be to advocate tirelessly for this bill while fending off crippling amendments like Cornyn’s. Perhaps some Republicans will succeed in killing such a momentous reform movement, or on the other hand, perhaps common sense will prevail as Congress proves to the American people that it indeed still can get something meaningful done.