Originally Published in USA Today
Opinion by Robert Robb (Arizona Republic) - January 30, 2021
President Joe Biden wants to take a serious, early run at comprehensive immigration reform. That’s good.
Unfortunately, his initial proposal doesn’t offer a sound starting point, substantively or politically.
Substantively, here’s what should happen.
Focus on 'Dreamers' first
First, Congress should pass a standalone bill that provides permanent legal status for those known as “Dreamers,” people brought here illegally while children.
The Obama administration established, by executive action, a program by which “Dreamers” could have renewable, temporary status, including the ability to work and attend college. The Trump administration tried to repeal the program, known by the acronym DACA, also by executive action, but a questionable U.S. Supreme Court decision found procedural flaws in how it was done.
With Biden in the White House, the DACA program is not under any political threat. But it remains highly vulnerable to legal challenge. If the legality of the program gets to the existing Supreme Court, it is highly likely to be struck down.
These young adults deserve certainty and the ability to plan out their lives. Permanent legal status is the minimum that would give them that. That certainty shouldn’t be held up for the resolution of other issues, such as immigration enforcement, a broader amnesty or a path to citizenship.
The case for amnesty
Beyond the DACA population, Biden proposes a general amnesty for those currently in the country illegally and a pathway to citizenship. I agree with that. It best balances all the considerations and equities involved.
It is true that these illegal immigrants violated our laws to be here. That is no small thing and shouldn’t be lightly dismissed by those advocating amnesty.
But they followed what was our de facto immigration policy for many years now. That policy was roughly as follows: We will try to nab you if you illegally cross the border. But if you make it into the interior and live a productive life, we’ll leave you alone.
As a result, there are many illegal immigrants with settled lives in this country. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are around 280,000 illegal immigrants residing in Arizona. Nearly 70% have lived in this country for longer than 10 years.
As a result of the de facto immigration policy, there are now millions of blended families in the country, with some members legally here and some not. The institute estimates that there are more than four million children in the country who are citizens but have at least one parent illegally present.
Breaking up those families would be morally unfathomable.
Make this the last amnesty
However, to gain broader acceptance of an amnesty, and have immigration recede as a divisive political issue, there needs to be reason to believe that this will be the last amnesty. That from this point forward our immigration laws will be fully enforced and illegal immigration will become negligible.
The best, and probably only, way to achieve that is by an immediate, national requirement that businesses use the E-Verify system for all new hires. That is a federal program that electronically confirms legal eligibility to work in this country.
Contrary to claims by the business community, which wants to preserve an elastic supply of low-skilled workers, the current system works fine and is adequate without upgrades or improvements. The only way to defeat it is through identity theft, using the name and Social Security number of a real person.
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The mandatory use of E-Verify, and a commitment by the federal government to take identity theft to defeat the system seriously, would effectively lock illegal immigrants out of the formal U.S. economy. That would reduce illegal immigration to a trickle, even without other enforcement measures commonly invoked in these discussions.
What Biden needs to do
This is where the Biden proposal gets off to a bad start, substantively and politically. The only workplace enforcement measure he suggests is a committee to study it. He has largely suspended current immigration enforcement. He doesn’t seem to understand, or accept, the need to provide some reason to believe that this will be the last amnesty.
Getting comprehensive reform done politically in such a closely divided Congress will require a lot of give all around. Job one is to provide “Dreamers” certainty and remove them from the mix, except for a path to citizenship.
If comprehensive immigration reform isn’t to once again become the victim of partisan gridlock, job two is for Biden to send a strong signal of a commitment to make this the last amnesty, by expressing full-throated support for an immediate, universal E-Verify requirement.