June 26 2013 09:06 AM

It's flawed, but it's the only way to bring millions out from the shadows

House Speaker John Boehner
Photo courtesy of Medill DC / Flickr

On Monday, the U.S. Senate voted 67 to 27 to end debate on an amendment to legislation that would make significant changes to the nation's immigration system, setting the stage for the Senate to vote on the full bill before the Fourth of July break. The amendment added language that would essentially make the United States' border with Mexico even more militarized than it already is, doubling the size of the border patrol, adding more fencing and costing upwards of $30 billion when that money could be better spent shoring up social services or building infrastructure.

But, we're told, the amendment was necessary to run up the pro-immigration-reform vote total in the Senate to an arbitrary goal of 70. Once upon a time, it took just 51 votes to pass a bill in the Senate. Thanks to the Republicans' practice of filibustering everything important, now it takes 60 votes. Suddenly, 70 is the new 60.

As drawn up by the so-called Gang of Eight—the four Democrats and four Republicans who launched this most recent attempt to overhaul immigration law—a 70-vote landslide is needed to pressure enough Republicans in the House of Freaks, er, Representatives to climb aboard and avoid having the whole thing die there, as a similar effort did in 2006 (a 2007 attempt didn't even get out of the Senate).

What the House does will reveal the exact contours of the divide in the Republican Party. On one side are those who understand that the party's survival depends on making amends with Latino voters and that immigration reform will slap a smile on the face of the big-business segment of the party's donor base. On the other side is the mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging faction that simply can't accept legalizing the estimated 11 million people (read: Mexicans and other darker-skinned invaders who, by virtue of their presence, are degrading our quality of life) who successfully crossed the border without permission, even though there's no feasible way to deport them and legitimizing them is better for the economy.

As much as we'd love to watch the Republican Party implode, fixing immigration is far more important—even though this bill is a long way away from perfect.

The main ingredient in the bill would establish a process for law-abiding, employed people who were here illegally by Dec. 31, 2011, to come out of the shadows. They would apply for Resident Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, which they would maintain for six years, after which they could renew their application for another four years. After that, they could apply for a green card, and three years after that, they could begin the citizenship process. The bill would make numerous changes to some current visa categories that appear to favor employmentbased immigration over a family-based system. It would also require all employers to use the E-Verify system within four years. The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) has a good analysis of the specifics at nilc.org.

We're concerned about the high cost of legalization under the bill. In addition to whatever the processing fee ends up being and whatever back taxes are assessed, folks applying for RPI status will have to pay $500 initially and another $500 at renewal, plus $1,000 to apply for a green card. That seems prohibitively expensive for such a low-income population; more than 25 percent of undocumented families earn less than $20,000 per year, according to the NILC. The bill also bars those with RPI status from benefiting from key health and welfare programs, which is just mean and, in our view, stupid in the long run.

On the bright side, the bill would enshrine the provisions of the DREAM Act, which legalizes people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and it would give these immigrants a faster track toward green-card status.

Progressives could oppose the bill because it isn't ideal, but that would leave us with no reform at all and no hope for anything in the foreseeable future. This represents the best chance at officially recognizing that millions of people who have come to the U.S. are economic refugees who fled their homes and families because of dire circumstances; they're not criminals. This, finally, would tell them that they are welcome here. 

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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