A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona.… (Matt York / Associated Press )
As an attorney and a supporter of immigration reform, I read the Op-Ed article Monday by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) hoping to learn more about principled conservative opposition to the so-called Gang of Eight's plan in the Senate. Instead, I was disappointed by Sessions' one-sided view of the legislation, as well as by his failure to offer any alternative for fixing our immigration system.
Sessions characterizes the Senate plan as "amnesty." In reality, it's anything but, as the bill would force undocumented immigrants to pay back taxes, fees and at least $2,000 in fines, pass a background check and wait 13 years before they could become citizens. Thirteen years from now is 2026. If that seems far off, it is. So we are not talking about free passes or giveaways; we are talking about an earned pathway to citizenship that is long and rigorous.
Sessions quotes Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Gang of Eight, as saying: "First, people will be legalized.... Then we'll make sure the border is secure." Schumer did indeed make these remarks on April 2, but they don't reflect what's actually in the bill.
The Senate proposal, unveiled April 16, provides for border security enforcement measures concurrent with a plan to legalize the undocumented. It allocates up to $6.5 billion for new border security and surveillance, and charges the Department of Homeland Security with developing a comprehensive border security strategy. This must be operational before undocumented immigrants are allowed to adjust their status. Moreover, GOP lawmakers are currently seeking tougher security requirements, now that the bill is before the full Senate.
"The bill allows the DHS or an immigration judge to stop any future deportation for humanitarian reasons, the public interest or family unity," Sessions writes. Is this a bad thing?
Allowing the DHS or judges discretion in deportations will protect asylum-seekers and stop tearing apart families. But Sessions believes that the Senate proposal will lead to "the end of immigration enforcement in America." That's a huge extrapolation, considering that the Obama administration has been responsible for record levels of deportations.
Sessions is concerned that the Senate proposal does not have strict requirements for the undocumented to learn English. Yet failing to learn English may not be a problem because the Pew Center has found that Latino immigrants, who account for the majority of the undocumented, follow the same language trajectories as other groups in the past: The immigrants are generally Spanish-language dominant; in the second generation, the use of Spanish falls and the use of English rises; and by the third generation, English becomes the dominant language.
Nevertheless, Sessions' worry about language may be misplaced. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the driving forces behind the Senate bill, just introduced an amendment toughening the requirements for learning English.
Sessions suggests that the bill will not address the issue of immigrants who overstay their visas. In fact, during the amendment process, the Senate adopted two fixes aimed at this problem. The Senate Judiciary Committee adopted a proposal to require biometric screening at airports to track the departures of foreigners on international flights. It also adopted a proposal to create a database for federal authorities and national security agencies to identify travelers who remain in the country after their visas have expired.
Sessions believes that the Senate bill amounts to a triumph of the "Washington elite" over the "everyday citizen." Not only is that an unusual claim from a lawmaker who has served in the Senate since 1997, but polling from the Washington Post shows that a majority of the public supports reform that includes a path to citizenship.
I understand that Sessions has serious doubts about the Senate immigration plan. I do too. Yet what is the alternative? Sessions does not offer one of his own. Although the Gang of Eight's plan may not be perfect, it is the product of months of careful negotiations and bipartisan cooperation. It improves our legal immigration system and provides for smarter border security. Its defeat would keep us at the status quo, with an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the shadows.
It is unfortunate that Sessions does not recognize the historic chance we have to update our immigration system for the 21st century. The Senate proposal is a way forward on immigration, and for that reason alone it is worthy of support.
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Raul A. Reyes is an attorney in New York.
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