In Search of a Path Forward on Immigration

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By Laura D. Francis

July 11 — The path to an overhaul of the nation's immigration system remains murky, with deep divisions making it difficult to find common ground.

“The key to getting anything done that changes where we are now” is to find common ground and “try to work out something in the middle,” Theresa Brown, director of immigration policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, said July 11.

When those with the “hardest points of view on either side are dominating the debate, we end up where we have been, which is 15 years with no change,” she said at a BPC-sponsored event.

“If no one likes where we are right now, somebody, somebody is going to have to take the leadership to move something forward,” Brown said.

Enforcement First?

Jon Feere, a legal policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies—which advocates for lower immigration levels—said discussions about how to address the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. can begin once the proper immigration enforcement mechanisms are in place.

The last time Congress overhauled the immigration system, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the idea was to legalize undocumented immigrants in exchange for a new enforcement structure targeting employers, he said.

There was concern that “legalization would happen immediately, but the enforcement would never materialize,” and that's pretty much what happened, Feere said.

“We spend a lot of money on enforcement,” and there's been a “record number of deportations under this administration,” Angela Maria Kelley, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said. In addition, the comprehensive immigration bill (S. 744) that passed the Senate in 2013 was “one of the toughest” on enforcement, yet it was completely ignored by House Republicans, she said.

In fact, Kelley said, House Republicans didn't even offer any immigration bills, enforcement-focused or otherwise. “They just sat on their hands,” she said.

A Matter of Messaging

John Feehery, president of the QGA Public Affairs communications practice, who previously served as press secretary to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), chalked up S. 744's failure to advocates' inability to communicate about it properly. The bill “had a lot of enforcement in it” but was presented primarily as “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, he said.

And because it was comprehensive, anyone could “slice and dice” the bill and emphasize particular parts of it while ignoring the rest, Feehery said. It's easy to “lose control of the message,” he said.

S. 744 had “promises of future enforcement,” which were “broken in the past,” Feere said. A good segment of the American public knows that a comprehensive immigration bill like the 2013 measure will just lead to more illegal immigration, he said. There would be more trust in a larger bill if an effective enforcement structure were already in place, he said.

But Feehery said he doesn't want an immigration system that is so focused on enforcement that it “creates a huge superstate.” The U.S. is a great country because of immigrants, who help grow the economy, he said. “Hammering businesses” and making it more difficult for them to hire people—immigrant or otherwise—isn't good policy in the long term, he said.

Impact on U.S. Workers

Giving business control over immigration is bad for U.S. workers, because employers are going to want cheaper workers, Feere said. Employers say they can't find American workers for the jobs they're hiring immigrants to perform, he said. But what they're really saying is they can't find American workers to perform those jobs at the depressed wages being offered, he said.

Legalizing undocumented immigrants actually rewards their employers, because now they can keep what had been an unauthorized workforce, Feere said. That isn't holding employers accountable for hiring undocumented workers the way the 1986 law intended, he said.

Immigrants are going to come and fill jobs whether or not they're legally able to do so, Kelley said. Several years ago when the economy was “humming” and there was looser border control, there were 500,000 undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. each year, she said. That was because of the “disconnect” between employers saying they needed immigrant workers, but immigration policies telling them to keep out, she said.

“We need a system that works for everyone,” where immigrants can get jobs where they're needed but American workers are still protected, Kelley said.

Kerri Talbot, a partner with the VENG Group, disputed the notion that it's low wages keeping U.S. workers away from certain jobs. Talbot was the chief counsel for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” which crafted S. 744.

There are agriculture jobs that involve working outside in 100-degree weather, in “horrible, horrible conditions” that drive away U.S. workers, Talbot said.

The comprehensive Senate bill also would have required employers to pay higher wages in order to take advantage of employment-based visa programs, thus addressing the concern that those programs would be exploited in order to hire cheap immigrant labor, Talbot said.

Changing the Dynamic

“The dynamic among House Republicans has to change” in order for legislation to move forward, Kelley said. As a result of gerrymandered House districts, there is a shrinking pool of moderate House Republicans who are willing to even start a conversation about a broader immigration overhaul, she said.

“That could all change if [Republicans] lose the House of Representatives” and if Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, “gets crushed” in the November election, Feehery said. Right now, House members see no political risk to themselves from inaction on immigration, and so that's what they're doing, he said.

Still, the Senate continues to provide some hope, Talbot said. There's “a very good core” of Republicans in that chamber who want and are willing to talk about a comprehensive approach to immigration, she said. “I do think in 2017 that we have a good shot.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at lfrancis@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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