On Sunday, May 20, one day after the release of a Senate proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina predicted boldly on Fox News that the piece of much-anticipated legislation would pass overwhelmingly. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, likewise foreseeing little resistance, outlined plans for a vote before the Memorial Day recess.
But stiff criticism of the bill did not take long to surface-needing only sufficient time for special interest groups and lawmakers on the left and right to read the 325-page draft. By Monday, May 21, the first day of Senate debate, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act was under assault from all sides.
Conservatives cried amnesty, liberals called it classist and anti-family, and immigrants' rights groups charged that it would undermine the country's menial labor force. Opponents accused the bill's drafters, a bipartisan coalition of a dozen senators and two members of the Bush administration, of a desperate attempt to rush flawed policy into law without time for standard vetting procedures.
Indeed, the far-reaching "grand bargain," as its creators call it, never passed through the usual committee review process, moving straight from closed-door machinations to the Senate floor. Such urgency reflects at least two areas of broad consensus: First, the current system for handling illegal immigration is terribly inept. And second, a possible solution forged from an alliance of conservative Republicans Jon Kyl and John Cornyn with liberal Democrats Ted Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein is, on its face, a political marvel worth immediate and thorough consideration.
But general agreement on the matter stops there. On the first day of debate, GOP Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said the bill offers "pure unadulterated amnesty." Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky agreed, calling it a "large-scale get-out-of-jail-free pass" that would "reward lawbreakers."
The proposal provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently residing within the United States. But that get-out-of-jail pass is hardly free. Undocumented workers seeking citizenship would need to pay $6,500 in fines and fees, prove themselves proficient in English, pass a criminal background check, pay all back taxes, prove full-time employment, return to their home country to apply for a visa, and wait a total of 13 years at a minimum. Any illegal alien not coming forward to begin the legalization process within one year of the bill's implementation would face deportation.
Sen. Kyl of Arizona, the bill's leading Republican supporter, defends that road to citizenship as stricter than that of past proposals and a necessary compromise to achieve Republican aims of increased border security and workplace enforcement. He admits that the legislation is far from perfect but argues that doing nothing is much worse.
Kyl and his fellow GOP supporters of the plan fought successfully to include the hiring of 18,000 border patrol agents, the construction of 370 miles of fencing, and the implementation of an electronic employment verification system that would mete out harsh penalties to employers for hiring illegal workers. These stiffer provisions act as triggers in the bill, necessitating their completion before the proposal's more accommodating actions can begin.
But opponents say the triggers amount to nothing new, simply restating measures that have previously passed but not yet taken effect. Legislation already exists to build 700 miles of fence and add 20,000 border guards. And hiring undocumented workers has long been illegal, though the law is poorly enforced. Nevertheless, Republican negotiators appeared willing to comply with Democratic calls for amnesty in exchange for measures that need only stronger enforcement, not repeat legislation.
The bill also includes a guest-worker program, an annual offer of 400,000 so-called "Z" visas for two-year working stints in the United States separated by one-year stints back home. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, maligns that program for establishing a new legal category of second-class workers to perform inferior jobs with few rights or privileges. Some conservatives say the program would never attract high-skilled workers who benefit the economy, because two years is not enough time to make worthwhile complex training for specialized positions.
Such economic concerns dominate among skeptical conservatives. In a recent report, Heritage Foundation research fellow Robert E. Rector calculates the fiscal cost to the U.S. taxpayer of low-skill immigrants. Taking into account Social Security, Medicare, and other government benefits such as housing, welfare, food stamps, education, infrastructure, and police and fire protection, Rector concludes that each low-skilled immigrant household receives nearly three dollars in immediate benefits and services for each dollar of taxes paid.
Over the course of one year, that ratio produces an average shortfall of almost $20,000 per household. Over the next 10 years, Rector projects that the 4.5 million low-skilled immigrant households in the country would generate deficits approaching $1 trillion. "Even if you were to view this as some form of charity, it's a completely irrational form," he said. "If we just wanted to be generous to the poor, why don't we go find people who didn't break the U.S. law and give them hundreds of thousands of dollars?"
One provision Rector supports in the bill would deemphasize the consideration of family ties in granting visas, elevating labor skills as the primary determinant of who is first in line-though that change would remain grandfathered out for eight years. Rector contends that family considerations swell the number of low-skilled immigrants and increase the burden on American taxpayers.
But some Senate Democrats have challenged this deemphasis on family ties and so have some conservatives. Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, contends that prohibiting workers from bringing their families would increase the country's number of young, unattached males (a problem demographic) and create a class of workers with no hope or intent for cultural assimilation.
Supporters of the bill acknowledge the diverse and numerous objections but argue that fine-tuning can solve most of the concerns. Kyl warns that significant amendments undoing the plan's basic construction would threaten the delicate compromise and erode support, including his. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle fear that such failure could prevent further attempts at solving illegal immigration for years to come. Daniel T. Griswold, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies, implores congressional leaders "to seize this opportunity for true reform."
Rector doesn't buy that need for urgency: "The longer this is discussed in the public, the more rational policy we will get." He'd prefer to see the immigration debate play a major role in the 2008 presidential election.
Perhaps it already has: According to widely circulated reports, Republican front-runner John McCain fired colorful expletives at Sen. Cornyn of Texas in a heated exchange over the immigration-reform bill two days before its public release. The incident highlighted the Arizona senator's notorious temper and foreshadowed an impending national showdown over a not-so-grand bargain.