On Monday, the unlikely bipartisan duo of Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announced a plan to move forward with immigration reform measures. The following day, President Obama added his voice to the growing chorus of officials on both sides of the aisle to get something practical done on the issue of what to do about undocumented immigrants.
The plan released by the Senate on Monday lays out a framework with a strict path to citizenship that is directly tied to border security. The Senate plan includes the line, “Contingent upon our success in securing our borders and addressing visa overstays." This is crucial because it is a substantial impediment for most undocumented immigrants and may rely on Republican governors giving the okay that the borders in their state are “secure.” The plan creates a commission of governors, community leaders and attorneys general to assess whether or not the new border security measures are, in fact, sufficient.
This rigid standard has given some reason to dismiss the framework as unattainable or unable to do much to fix the immigration problem. Perhaps that’s why the president announced his own plan in Nevada on Tuesday, which features more extensive reforms—including protections for gay couples—with a focus on specific areas: continuing to strengthen border security, cracking down on employers hiring the undocumented, creating a pathway to citizenship, making it easier for DREAMers (children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to America when they were very young) to stay in the country and making the process of legal immigration much easier to navigate.
President Obama's ultimate goal seems to be improvements in the immigration system that treat everyone the same. The White House's official immigration reform fact sheet says, “America's immigration system is broken. Too many employers game the system by hiring undocumented workers and there are 11 million people living in the shadows. Neither is good for the economy or the country. It is time to act to fix the broken immigration system in a way that requires responsibility from everyone— both from the workers here illegally and those who hire them—-and guarantees that everyone is playing by the same rules,” a message President Obama echoed on Tuesday. “I’m here today because the time has come for common sense, comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “The time is now.”
That the Obama administration has yet to achieve immigration reform is a high profile failure which immigrant groups have pointed out since voting en masse to re-elect the president to a second term. Much of the support Obama received in the 2012 election had to do with his promise to get it right this time, but that requires the ever-elusive bipartisan agreement. The fact that Monday's Senate report came from both sides of the aisle is a step in the right direction and signifies progress in a time when anti-immigrant hardliners on the Right made the debate intractable for so long.
It may also be true that the passage of bipartisan immigration reform is harmful to the Republican party, which has long been seen as the obstacle to legislation on this issue. As Congress deals with tanking approval ratings, this may not seem like the prime moment to push through such bold and comprehensive legislation. However, members of Congress from both parties understand that the immigrants and people of color responsible for President Obama's second term will just as easily vote them out of office in the 2014 midterms if their issues aren’t addressed.