Skip to navigationSkip to content

What you need to know about America’s big immigration reform proposal

Migrants ride on top of a northern bound train toward the US-Mexico border in Ixtepec, in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, Thursday, March 10, 2011.
AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo
Instead of a railway to the American border, how about a pathway to US citizenship?
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A bipartisan group of eight US senators has offered a framework to overhaul America’s broken immigration system, offering rhetorical support to President Obama a day before he is due to deliver a major speech on the topic. Is it a big deal? Immigration experts say “yes.”

What’s the most important thing? Conservatives finally endorsing a “path to citizenship,” which in the past has been vociferously opposed on the right. In many cases, it still is.

What’s the problem? 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States as second-class citizens, and a huge queue of people waiting to gain visas or becoming citizens. The US could use the economic benefits of new immigrants to keep its population growing and gain more skilled workers, but concerns about US-border security and citizenship qualification have hounded legislative progress.

Who did what today? Four senators from each party—John McCain, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake from the Republicans; Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Bob Menendez and Michael Bennet from the Democrats—have published a framework for an immigration bill. You can read it here. The make-up of the coalition is important: Rubio is considered a rising conservative star with his eye on the White House in 2016, McCain was the party’s presidential standard bearer in 2008, and Flake is an influential border state conservative; meanwhile, Schumer and Durbin are two most important Senate Democrats besides leader Harry Reid. Nota bene: No members of the Senate Republican leadership have signed on to this framework.

Why is this happening now? Didn’t immigration reform die in 2007? Republicans fared worse among Latino voters in 2012 compared to 2008. Obama has long promised comprehensive immigration reform, and the growing political voice of Latinos means that American conservatives have an incentive to support it; plus, many business interests would like to see a better system. Washington looks set to negotiate on the issue for the first time since the failure of bipartisan legislation sponsored in 2007 by McCain and the late Senator Ted Kennedy. It’s a much better climate now: border security is improved, and changing economic fortunes in Mexico and the US have reduced the flow of undocumented immigrants.

What do immigration advocates get? A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the US today: they’ll need to get background checks, pay back taxes and a fine, and learn English and civics.

What do illegal immigrants get? Sent to the back of the citizenship line. But they’ll get to live and work with “probationary” status in the US until it is their turn to receive a green card.

What do security advocates get? More money to be spent on border security: More border patrollers, more drones (a win for a budding industry), and more “infrastructure”—fences, cameras, etc.

What do federal immigration enforcers get? More to do—they’ll be implementing new programs to verify that employers aren’t hiring illegal immigrants and implementing a new entry-exit visa system to make sure foreign visitors don’t overstay their welcome.

What about the children of illegal immigrants, or foreigners who earn advanced degrees in the US? They get treated differently. The kids will not face the onerous path to citizenship their parents will, while foreigners who earn advanced STEM degrees at American universities will earn green cards.

The agriculture industry is getting special treatment, too. Three out of four agricultural workers are illegal immigrants, and so it seems that a kind of guest worker program to protect the labor underlying the nation’s food supply. 

What’s the catch? One outstanding question is whether the number of green cards (which allow holders the right to live and work freely in the US) will be increased to deal with the backlog and all the new people on the pathway to citizenship. The other important mechanism in the bill is that security benchmarks need to be reached before the pathway to citizenship is opened, and some of those benchmarks will be set by a commission of officials from America’s southwest border states. How that mechanism is constructed, and who controls it, will be key questions in the law’s development.

So what’s Obama going to do tomorrow? He’s expected to outline a fairly similar proposal, only now he will be able to note that several conservative senators agree with him about the need for a path to citizenship. The challenge is that anything specific Obama endorses, even Republican proposals, can become anathema to conservatives, so he will need be careful with his words.

There’s no guarantee of success—we’ve Senators tout bipartisan proposals before. There is a lot of row to hoe before this becomes a law, and we’ve seen bipartisan groups of Senators endorse frameworks—like the major tax increases endorsed by Republicans and entitlement cuts signed on to by Democrats in the 2010 Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission—that aren’t laws yet. On the other hand, the political situation seems primed for a plan like this to pass.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.