By WSJ, Editorial
If President Obama wants a bipartisan immigration reform this year, the policy and political path is being laid out for him. That’s the meaning of Monday’s statement of reform principles from a bipartisan group of eight Senators across the political spectrum.
The agreement is a breakthrough because it includes compromises from both Republicans and Democrats that, at least in principle, address the main obstacles that have killed reform in the past. The most politically potent of those issues is what to do about the 11 million illegals currently in the U.S. But more important for the country’s future is admitting more immigrants, both high- and low-skilled, and creating a process that lets them enter and leave legally as economic opportunities ebb and flow. This will be the action to watch.
Critics on the right assail the last big immigration reform, in 1986, and they have a point. That reform offered citizenship to current illegal immigrants but it failed to set up a process for future legal immigration to meet the needs of fast-moving labor markets. Thus it created an incentive for foreigners to arrive illegally and never leave lest they never be able to return to the U.S. if they did go home. Avoiding that mistake should be one of the main goals of this or any other immigration reform.
On that point, the Senate framework has promise but also a long way to go. For example, the statement says their legislation will “allow more lower-skilled immigrants to come here when our economy is creating jobs, and fewer when our economy is not creating jobs.”
Well, great, but the key is how that principle is implemented. If it means putting some government official or commission in charge of declaring that there is a “labor shortage” in an industry, it will be worse than the status quo. Political forces will control when such a shortage is declared, if ever. The better way is a large and robust guest-worker program that lets the flow of immigrants meet labor demands across the economy.
When U.S. growth is slow, as it has been since the financial panic, fewer workers will come and many will leave. The net migration to the U.S. is estimated to have been flat for several years. But when growth recovers, a legal path to enter the U.S.—to obtain, say, a six-year work pass that would be transferable from job to job—would let immigrants respond quickly to genuine shortages without creating an incentive to stay illegally.
This should be a priority for GOP reformers—both because it makes economic sense and because it will do more to reduce the flow of future illegal immigration than would another 100,000 border agents. The economic reality is that migrants are going to follow economic opportunities, legally or not. The trick is to give them ways to do so legally.
This will also be the part of the bill most opposed by the AFL-CIO because unions don’t want more workers who don’t belong to unions. Senate Democrats gutted the guest-worker program during President George W. Bush’s attempt at reform in 2007, and both Dick Durbin and then Senator Obama of Illinois were among the gutters.
As for the millions of illegals already here, both sides have made important compromises. The four Republicans, led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, have conceded that reform needs to include an ultimate path to citizenship. This drops the fantasy embraced by Mitt Romney and the restrictionist right that people who have been here for years and have deep family and economic roots are going to “self-deport.”
In return, the four Democrats, led by New York’s Chuck Schumer and Mr. Durbin, have agreed to accept substantial enforcement guarantees and procedural hurdles before such a citizenship path would be open. This has been a sticking point for GOP cooperation and should help Republicans rebut the false charge that this amounts to an “amnesty.”
In Mr. Rubio’s description, this path would require that illegals come out of the shadows, register for a special residence visa, pay a fine and back taxes, prove a work history, and then wait in line behind others who have already been waiting to get their green cards. Congress will debate the details, but the process could take as long as 15 years.
A path to citizenship would also assist the process of assimilation that has been one of America’s historic strengths. The U.S. should not want a permanent class of residents who can never be citizens and thus have less incentive to adapt to U.S. cultural mores, speak English, or move out of segregated ethnic enclaves.
Which brings us back to Mr. Obama. The President will lay out his own reform principles Tuesday, but the question is whether he wants an achievement or a political issue. If he wants a genuine reform, the Senate framework shows how much Republicans have already moved his way. GOP leaders can read the 2012 exit polls, and thanks to the persuasion of Mr. Rubio, Jeb Bush and a few others, more conservatives are now more amenable to reform.
Yet neither Mr. Obama nor his White House have reached out to Mr. Rubio, and many Democrats want to use the immigration issue to drive turnout in election after election. Their goal is to have a legislative dance and then blame Republicans for killing reform sometime in 2014.
If that is Mr. Obama’s real goal, he’ll demand too much—by gutting the guest-worker program again or complicating it with too much bureaucracy, or by insisting on a quick and easy path to citizenship for illegals. Mr. Obama will have to decide if he wants a legacy of reform, or more partisanship.
A version of this article appeared on page The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Immigration Breakout.