As the fiscal cliff deal left the debt ceiling and so-called sequestration disputes unresolved, pundits speculated that immigration might get pushed to the side. But congressional aides, lawmakers, and advocates say the plans are on track and we should expect to see the first concrete steps sometime between President Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20 and his State of the Union address a couple weeks later.
Work began on a bill following the elections among a bipartisan group of senators, dubbed the “gang of eight” by Politico, but which has now shrunk in size according to Washington insiders. The group is expected to take the first public step in the process by releasing a set of principles sometime after the inauguration. Full legislative language is not expected until March or April, according to the Senate aide and Beltway advocates, and a vote probably won’t come down until June at the earliest.
Both parties start the year in the red on immigration.
Republicans have for years blocked all action on immigration reform, including the passage of the DREAM Act in 2010. Democrats, for their part, also have some making up to do. Obama gained political points from progressives and Latinos in 2012 for using his executive power to protect some immigrants, most notably by granting work permits and permission to stay in the country to DREAM Act youth. But his administration also deported historic numbers in the past four years.
Just before Christmas, the Department of Homeland Security announced that in 2012, 409,000 people were deported, more than in any other year recorded. And 90,000 of these deportees were the parents of U.S. citizens, according to government data.
So both parties say they now want to do right by immigrants, and immigration rights advocates say they’re gearing up for a ground game to push for the broadest possible legislation. “All our efforts have to be focused on comprehensive reform like a laser beam,” said Sylvia Ruiz, head of the Immigrant Justice Campaign for the two million-member SEIU labor union. “The goal is winning federal reform in this legislative cycle.”
What’s inside the bill will make all the difference. The Senate deliberations remain in the weeds and insiders say there’s nothing yet in writing. But, there are some things that we know, at least about the parameters. Over the past six years of failed legislative efforts at reform, comprehensive bills have involved a path to legal status for at least some unauthorized immigrants; a reworked legal system for new immigrants and guest workers; and shifts in enforcement to stop undocumented immigrants at the border, deport those in the interior and stop employers from hiring unauthorized workers.
Arguably the most important item immigration reformers hope to solve is the presence of over 11 million people who live in the country without papers, and thus often without access to the benefits and responsibilities of legal residency or citizenship, but with the threat of deportation and exploitation by employers. Lawmakers intend to legalize at least some undocumented immigrants.
But what legalization will look like is entirely up for debate.
First and foremost, there’s a question of whether the path to legalization will lead ultimately to citizenship or, instead, some kind of extended residency.
Advocates for an expansive citizenship program note that more Latino, Asian, Caribbean, and other citizens of color equal more voters who tend to vote Democrat, which Republicans have cause to resist. Indeed, in November, Republicans introduced a bill they called the Achieve Act, a GOP alternative to the DREAM Act. The bill, which didn’t become law, would have granted legal status, but no path to citizenship to undocumented young people. Republicans could push a broader legalization bill that s