Why Comprehensive Immigration Reform Will Happen

Earlier this year President Obama pushed Congress to move quickly on comprehensive immigration reform calling for an overhaul of the immigration system that would include a clear path to United States citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.  Then eight Senators released a bipartisan framework for comprehensive immigration reform, which in addition to creating a pathway to U.S. citizenship for 11 million immigrants, demanded that the legal immigration system of the United States be revamped to be more responsive to labor demand, especially at the high-skilled end of the occupational spectrum.  The bipartisan framework also demanded green cards given to foreign students who earn a graduate degree in science, engineering, technology, or mathematics from a U.S. university, and ask that U.S. employers be allowed to hire an immigrant worker if an American worker cannot be found to fill a position.

Now, in a parallel effort, a separate group of four senators will introduce a bill this week dealing with another thorny issue that is likely to be addressed in any comprehensive immigration reform measure: visas for legal immigrants with advanced skills in technology and science. The bill, written primarily by Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a Republican, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democrat, would nearly double the number of temporary visas, known as an H-1B, available each year to highly skilled immigrants. It would also free up more permanent resident visas, known as green cards, so those immigrants could eventually settle in the United States and go on to become citizens.

In a sign of the rapidly changing mood in Washington on comprehensive immigration reform, Republicans, Democrats, and the White House are racing in recent days to see who unveils their proposal first.  Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat who was one of those negotiating the comprehensive principles, said the senate has finally agreed that any legislation should include a pathway to citizenship.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, also joined the group of eight senators in recent weeks and endorsed comprehensive immigration reform.  Mr. Rubio, a Cuban-American who is a fast-rising figure in the Republican Party insisted on including the exit tracking system as one of the triggers for opening the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Mr. Rubio cited estimates that as many as 40 percent of immigrants in the country illegally had overstayed their visas.

Even House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, a Republican, is voicing confidence in the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform saying that a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House basically has an agreement after more than three years of secret negotiations.  Speaker Boehmer made the previously unreported comments during a question-and-answer session at the Ripon Society, a Republican advocacy group.

This begs the question, why the changing mood in Washington on the topic of comprehensive immigration reform.  First, Americans support the idea of comprehensive immigration reform in poll after poll.

Second, American employers need comprehensive immigration reform.   Whether the employer needs agricultural workers for seasonal and long-term labor, or highly skilled workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, American employers need comprehensive immigration reform to compete in the global economy, attract investors, and foster this country’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Lastly, comprehensive immigration reform is needed because the Hispanic voters, which proved to be the decisive voting block in this past presidential election, expect it.  One news analysis after another concluded that President Obama decisively won re-election because he overwhelmingly won the Latino vote.  As such, Republicans need to be seen as the party advancing comprehensive immigration reform or, come to terms with becoming irrelevant in this country’s political process.

As a first generation immigrant from Cuba, I am encouraged by the support for comprehensive reform.  My hope is that President Obama and Congress modernize our legal immigration system and honor the United States’ heritage as a nation of immigrants.

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