For political reasons, the most important component of the immigration reform deal reached by the Senate “Gang of Eight” deals with border security. Democrats and Republicans have built a compromise that might earn wide support from GOP lawmakers. The progress on immigration — the only issue about which it appears Washington gridlock may soon be overcome — suggests that the key to resolving future battles is to make Republicans see that it is in their interest to reach a deal.
The overall compromise establishes a provisional status for unauthorized immigrants who pass background checks and fulfill other requirements, such as paying fines and back taxes to the federal government. This is broadly in line with public opinion. The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 64 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants; it’s 76 percent when a proposed pathway includes fines, penalties and a background check. (Few Americans support the bill’s 10-year timeline for citizenship: 18 percent say unauthorized immigrants should be immediately eligible for citizenship if they have jobs, while 51 percent say these immigrants should be eligible if they have jobs and have been in the country for five years.)
The New York Times reports that the bill sets several goals for border authorities: “continuous surveillance of 100 percent of the United States border and 90 percent effectiveness of enforcement in several high-risk sectors,” as well as workplace and visa enforcement measures. It provides billions in new Department of Homeland Security funding and includes “triggers” to ensure that enforcement goals are met, such as requiring that DHS provide a five-year border security plan before the federal government can give legal status to unauthorized immigrants.
These components are key. The requirements allow Republicans to say that the government is prioritizing border security, providing a carrot of sorts to conservative lawmakers who fear “amnesty” as a result of immigration reform. But the bill doesn’t come with hard targets for border security, which fulfills Democratic demands that immigrants have an unencumbered path to citizenship.
A host of obstacles remains to be overcome, but it appears likely that immigration policy actually will be reformed. Passage would illustrate a key fact about the current political moment: Presidential leadership won’t break Washington gridlock. Action happens when both sides feel that it is in their interest to move. For now, immigration is the only issue where that’s true.
Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.