Yesterday, January 28th, 2013, a bi-partisan group of Senators issued a 4 page memo outlining their vision for immigration reform. The memo admits that our current immigration system is broken, and discusses, among other things both a path to legalization for undocumented aliens as well as a new path to permanent residency for graduates from U.S. colleges and universities who receive graduate degrees (i.e., either Master's or Ph.D.'s) in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) discipline.
This is an excellent sign that Congress recognizes the importance of immigration reform and is making reform a high priority. The memo has already reinvigorated public debate on this topic and the White House has confirmed that it has a working draft of a Bill and is merely waiting for Congress to come up with a Bill of it's own before introducing the President's Bill. However, this is just the very beginning of a very long, difficult process which is likely to take most of 2013. Senator Marco Rubio, one of the author's of the memo, estimates that draft legislation based on the memo will not be ready for mark-up until at least late March.
In addition, there is some troubling language in the memo that I hope will be addressed and resolved during the drafting of the actual Bill:
1. The memo would require the effectiveness of the Bill's border security provisions to be confirmed by a commission composed of politicians and "community leaders living along the Southwest Border." Benefits outlined in the legislation for undocumented aliens will not be implemented until the effectiveness of border security has been confirmed by the commission. Moreover, although they will receive no benefits initially, the undocumented population will be required to register with the government and simply wait for this commission to tell them whether and when they will be able to become documented.
2. The memo indicates that special treatment should be given to undocumented individuals working in the Agricultural industry.
The above provisions are troubling because they could completely stifle actual reform and encourage a flood of fraudulent applications which would further discourage true reform in the future. First, the memo does not mention how the "effectiveness" of border security is to be measured. If this is left to the commission, it is quite possible that it will never conclude that the measures are effective. This would mean that the millions of undocumented aliens registered with USCIS will never receive any benefits. They will, however, through the registration process, have told immigration officials who they are and where they can be found.
Second, we have tried to give agricultural workers special treatment before, and that turned out to be, at best, ineffective. Congress passed the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program in 1986 that required, among other things, that an alien had to have worked as an agricultural worker in order to receive benefits. This resulted in a huge number of applications supported by either counterfeit or fraudulent employment letters. This problem caused years-long delays in adjudications and prevented even legitimate agricultural workers from ever receiving the intended benefits. Unless the Bill effectively addresses the problems created by the previous SAW program, we will just see more of the same. Even worse, such massive fraud will cause anti-immigration groups to become even more entrenched in their positions by confirming their beliefs that immigrants are bad for this country.
Again, this is just a memo. We won't see a Bill for at least another two months. The memo has brought immigration reform into the forefront of public debate and that is a very good thing. However, although it is undeniably a very good start, it is only a start; there is still a long way to go.