A Bipartisan Immigration Plan, Carrots and Sticks

May 18, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Just days ahead of a planned Sunday rally that immigrants' rights advocates hope will bring tens of thousands of people to Washington D.C., Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have put out a "blueprint" to overhaul the nation's immigration system In a Washington Post column, the two legislators outlined a plan that should lower the decibel level of immigrants' advocates who have voiced their frustration with members of Congress and the President for failing so far to make good on campaign promises to enact immigration reform. President Obama immediately congratulated the senators for producing "a promising, bipartisan framework which can and should be the basis for moving forward." To the extent that publication of a newspaper op-ed article can signal progress, it offers a glimmer of hope that immigration reform might actually be in the offing, although its timing suggests that the immediate goal was to deflect likely verbal attacks during and after Sunday's rally.

The two senators have outlined a four-point plan that, while vague on details, attempts to resurrect immigration reform proposals that were put forth but rejected in 2007. Schumer and Graham's plan has "four pillars: requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement; creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here."

As was the case in 2007, the blueprint attempts to offer something for all sides--a carrot and stick approach that might appease immigration reform advocates but is unlikely to win over critics, particularly in the current economic climate. Restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA will simply not go along with any "path to legalization," no matter how "tough and fair" it might be. Ditto for plans to cater to the business community by setting up a system for "future flows" of low- and high-skilled workers. Biometric social security cards are likely to raise the ire of civil liberties advocates, as they have in the past. And, both immigrant rights and business groups have justifiably complained that a worker identification system is on the one hand unreliable, and, on the other could lead to racial discrimination in hiring.

But, even with its compromises and weaknesses, a plan for comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue. It is unconscionable that 11 million or more people live in the shadows--most of them welcomed during economic good times when we needed their labor, but now, with the economic downturn, considered expendable commodities.

The real problem, however, is that as long as the legislative stalemate over comprehensive immigration reform continues, a humane legalization program, such as the one that President Reagan signed in 1986, is impossible. As a result, the default executive policy embraced by the administration is a continuation of President Bush's stern enforcement strategy. With the growing assault from the right, a focus on immigration enforcement might appear to be a politically pragmatic way of appeasing critics, but it does a disservice to the millions of voters who had a right to expect more from this President and this Congress. It's encouraging that President Obama is urging Schumer and Graham "to translate their framework into a legislative proposal" and asking "Congress to act at the earliest possible opportunity." But if he is sincere, he needs to join in spirit with the demonstrators on the Washington Mall on Sunday and put on the pressure.

Jeffrey Kaye is a veteran journalist and author. His book, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley) will be available next month.