Lawmakers agree: It's now time for immigration fix

Border security, scope of legislation are among questions
2013-01-27T00:00:00Z 2013-01-29T08:03:39Z Lawmakers agree: It's now time for immigration fixPerla Trevizo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 27, 2013 12:00 am  • 

There's no question there's momentum for immigration reform this year.

President Obama was re-elected in great part by the Latino vote, and he has made it one of his top priorities, even mentioning it in his inaugural address.

And Republicans have realized that the party can't go forward without wooing this growing segment of the population, experts and politicians agree. In fact, Obama will begin his second-term immigration push during a trip Tuesday to Las Vegas. A bipartisan Senate working group is also aiming to outline its proposals at about the same time, officials have said.

"There's a recognition that the longer it goes the more difficult it is," said the Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.

"Nothing focuses the mind like a big loss, and we had it this last session," he added.

Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Obama, by about 7-to-1.

Hispanics are the nation's fastest-growing minority, and in Arizona as well, where they make up about 30 percent of the population.

"I don't think that politically, the Latino community is going to tolerate any more delays," said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat.

But even if there's a consensus that something needs to be done - if for nothing more than for political reasons - the challenge lies in the details:

• Should it be addressed in a comprehensive bill or one piece at a time?

• What should be the penalty for those who are already in the country without authorization?

• What would a secured border look like?

PIECEMEAL or sweeping

Many Democrats and the White House have said they will not accept anything short of comprehensive immigration reform, to opposition from some Republican leaders who argue it is easier to pass specific bills addressing issues like high-skilled workers and youths brought to the country without authorization, which have greater consensus.

Even among Arizona lawmakers and within the same party, there's no clear path.

Grijalva said he would like to see a comprehensive bill so something is not left behind.

"We can't keep coming back every two or three years and not solve the problem; comprehensive is the best solution," he said.

But he would be willing to support the piecemeal approach as a last resort, he said, "but it shouldn't be."

Flake agrees with Grijalva that comprehensive would be easier to deal with than separate bills, but he'll do "whatever can get done as long as it includes border security and a temporary guest-worker program."

U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, also an Arizona Democrat, said he would like to see what a comprehensive bill looks like before saying what he would support.

"If you talk to Arizonans and take their temperature on these individual topics like the Dream Act, guest- worker programs, bringing people out of the shadows, they agree," he said. "The problem is when you talk about comprehensive."

But the idea of offering a path to legal status to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants is getting some traction for the first time in several years.

Path to citizenship

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican who is seen as a likely presidential candidate in 2016, is developing a plan that would include streng-thening the border, provisions for seasonal workers and high-skilled immigrants and a path to citizenship.

It has earned the Cuban-American senator praise from both Republicans and Democrats, including the White House.

"No one is going to deport 12 million and they are not going to self-deport either," said Arizona's Flake, who as a representative sponsored a bill in 2007 that included an elaborate path to citizenship.

He and Sen. John McCain are now part of the so-called "Gang of Eight," a bipartisan group in the Senate that's working on an immigration-reform proposal.

One thing most lawmakers agree on seems to be in the way to handle so-called Dreamers, young people brought to the country illegally by their parents. Legislation aimed at helping this group and offering them a path to legal status has failed to pass both the House and the Senate since it was first introduced more than 10 years ago.

Under the Obama administration, many who would qualify for the Dream Act can apply for deferred action, which would let them stay in the United States without the risk of being deported and the opportunity to apply for a work permit that can be renewed every two years. But it doesn't provide for a path to legal status.

So far, about 400,000 have applied, 14,000 of them in Arizona - making it one of the top 10 states with the highest number of applicants.

"All of us recognize you can't punish a child for the parents' actions," said Flake, who favors offering this group a shorter path to citizenship than for those who came as adults.

Border security

But securing the border is also a prominent part of the immigration-reform discussion.

Flake said he would like to see more manpower and technology to more-effectively deploy resources. He would also like to know how long illegal immigrants are being held and where they are being released.

From fiscal 2004 to 2011, the number of Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border nearly doubled, from 9,500 to 18,500.

Both McCain and Flake have advocated for programs like Operation Streamline, in which crimi-nal charges are filed against those who cross into the country illegally.

Democrat Barber, who won Rep. Gabrielle Gif-fords' seat, wants the Border Patrol to have better goals and measurements to define border security.

"Border Patrol doesn't yet have a way of determining where to deploy their assets. We need to continue to stay focused on border security," Barber said.

For Grijalva, border security has dominated the immigration debate for a long time already.

"Now we have to move to the comprehensive side of it and start dealing with the families who are here," he said. "We have the opportunity to integrate millions of people who aspire to be Americans; we should take advantage of it."

But it doesn't mean that it's automatic or for everyone, he added.

"It needs to be a robust process, requiring them to learn English, to pay a fine, prove you've played by the rules and that you are a contributing member of society, then you get in line to get your citizenship," he said.

The Obama administration has been criticized by immigrant-rights groups and members of his own party for record-breaking deportations during his first term.

More than a 1.5 million people were removed from the country in the last four fiscal years - nearly 410,000 of them in 2012. The fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

Opponents argue that families are being separated and that the administration is not necessarily focusing on those who pose a danger to national security and the community.

No clear fix

Whatever the final bill looks like, it needs to match the economic demands and demographic shift of the country, said Judith Gans, manager of the Immigration Policy Program at the University of Arizona.

"I think people are rightly worried if forgiving being in the country illegally creates an incentive for illegal immigration," she said.

"If we don't change the immigration system to the realities of the economic needs and demographic shift, we are going to continue to see illegal immigration," she added.

McCain's office didn't respond to a request for comment, but McCain wrote in an editorial for the Arizona Daily Star published Jan. 6 that immigration and border security remain issues he is committed to addressing this year.

"The good news is that illegal immigration is at an all-time low, making now the time to dedicate the needed technology and resources to finally secure the border for good," he said.

"As border security improves, I look forward to working in a bipartisan manner to fix our broken immigration system and address the millions of people living in the United States outside of legal status," he added.

The window of when immigration can be addressed is the next nine to 10 months, said Barber.

Obama is expected to lay out the groundwork for what immigration reform might look like during his State of the Union address on Feb. 12.

Lawmakers will have to deal with the fiscal cliff and probably gun control before their attention shifts to immigration.

"I think the time is right for this conversation and to really be engaged in a bipartisan manner," Barber said.

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border

Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

• The last time there was comprehensive immigration reform was under President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

• Its major provisions included the legalization of illegal immigrants who had been living in the country continuously since 1982, the legalization of certain agricultural workers, sanctions for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers and increased enforcement at U.S. borders.

• Nearly 3 million people got permanent residency in the United States as a result of the legislation.

Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Migration Policy Institute.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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