immigration-reform-leg-reading-tea-leave-iv.jpgImmigration reform legislation is expected this spring to take center stage on Capitol Hill as lawmakers try to resolve the status of some 12 million illegal aliens.

The tea leaves tell us that two words, one procedural and one substantive, will determine the outcome: “comprehensive” and “special.”

Last year the Democrat-controlled US Senate approved, with President Obama’s enthusiastic support, S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, a sweeping immigration reform package. The bipartisan bill would address a wide range of issues, including mandatory E-Verify, visa processing and border security. Read more.

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Immigration Reform Legislation: Reading the Tea Leaves Part IV

Mon Feb 3, 2014

immigration-reform-leg-reading-tea-leave-iv.jpgImmigration reform legislation is expected this spring to take center stage on Capitol Hill as lawmakers try to resolve the status of some 12 million illegal aliens.

The tea leaves tell us that two words, one procedural and one substantive, will determine the outcome: “comprehensive” and “special.”

Last year the Democrat-controlled US Senate approved, with President Obama’s enthusiastic support, S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, a sweeping immigration reform package. The bipartisan bill would address a wide range of issues, including mandatory E-Verify, visa processing and border security.

The hot-button issue in the Senate-passed bill, of course, is granting those now in the country illegally full U.S. citizenship, with access to public benefits and voting rights, after some years and satisfying several conditions. The legislation would create a “special path to citizenship” for almost all undocumented immigrants.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has yet to approve immigration legislation. But just last week House Republicans released their standards for immigration reform.

In some ways the Republican concept paper mirrors the Senate-passed bill in addressing issues like border security, mandatory employment eligibility verification and visa processing.

But there the similarities end. On two central points Senate-House differences are significant: incremental, step-by-step legislation as opposed to a “comprehensive” approach; and legal status for undocumented aliens but no “special” path to citizenship.

Recognizing that our immigration system has “serious problems,” the principles paper insists “they cannot be solved with a single, massive piece of legislation.” House Republicans believe that the recent experience with comprehensive healthcare reform, the Affordable Care Act, precludes another comprehensive Washington DC prescription.

Instead they would consider individual pieces of legislation, e.g., first on border security, consider the merits and vote one-by-one. Individual bills could be packaged at a later date. On the question of citizenship, the main sticking point will be whether to enshrine into U.S. law something “special” for 12 million illegal immigrants.

The principles document would open this door a crack by creating a special path for those “who were brought to this country as children,” and either serve in the U.S. military or attain a college degree.

But there would be no special path to citizenship “for those who broke our nation’s immigration laws.” Such persons could be granted status so they could live and work legally in the U.S. if they met certain conditions like paying fines and back taxes. Legal status would permit these individuals to access the existing pathways to permanent residence that are available to anyone, but there would be no special pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Will immigration legislation become law in 2014? It faces three big hurdles:

One, House Republicans must be willing to translate their statement of principles into formal legislation and then vote to approve it.

Two, Senate Democrats must be willing to accede to a series of smaller bills and give up the special path to citizenship —a major concession.

And three, President Obama and the influential immigration advocacy community, including the AFL-CIO, need to be willing to accept half a loaf—permanent legal status for millions; but no special path to U.S. citizenship.

The tea leaves tell us that all this could happen if, and it’s a big if, Democrats and Republicans are willing to compromise on a consensus solution. But compromise requires trust, and that’s not very visible in Washington DC tea cups.