Immigration Reform Needs To Take a Page From Jeb Bush's Book

Bush and Clint Bolick's "Immigration Wars" points the way for reform advocates.

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The Senate is scheduled to hold its first vote on landmark bipartisan immigration legislation at 2:15 this afternoon, but it's not out of the woods yet. The vote is to invoke cloture, which it is expected to get. Post-cloture, it will be open season on the bill through the amendment process and accompanying votes.

Republicans are reportedly dissatisfied with the bill in four main areas: border security, immigrant access to benefits, criminal histories of potential citizens and refugee and asylum status in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy. Senators considering amendments to the bill would do well to consult the policy proposals offered in former Gov. Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick's "Immigration Wars" to address some of these issues.

According to Bush and Bolick, true border security requires an effective system to monitor those who enter the United States legally, in addition to a foolproof way of detecting illegal crossings. The Pew Hispanic Center has found that nearly half of illegal immigrants initially crossed the border legally and subsequently overstayed their visas. An amendment to be offered by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn includes a biometric entry/exit system to prevent visa overstays – but it also reportedly makes the opportunity to seek citizenship for the undocumented contingent upon a 90 percent apprehension rate. A rate that high seems unlikely to gain majority support.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

Regarding access to benefits, Bush and Bolick say the states should be able to decide which services to provide to immigrants. This makes sense because the states already bear the major cost of most social welfare benefits like education and health care. The states should also have more flexibility in law enforcement in the form of being able to supplement federal resources when necessary and to enforce voter identification laws.

As written, the underlying bill already reflects the approach advocated by the authors. "Our book suggests that the two pillars of reform must be a respect for the rule of law and an embrace of our immigrant heritage," Bush told me. "Immigration Wars" is a good faith effort to perform that balancing act, as is the current bill before the Senate.

As drafted, the legislation increases the number of visas for high-tech workers, creates a low-skilled guest-worker program and de-emphasizes the priority of family ties for available visas – all championed by Messieurs Bush and Bolick. It also creates a way for current illegal immigrants to become citizens over the course of 13 years. This is different from the pathway to permanent legal residency advocated by the authors of "Immigration Wars." But it is consistent with their stated purpose to "treat those who have settled in our country illegally with compassion and sensitivity … without sacrificing the rule of law."

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Foreign STEM Graduates Get Green Cards?]

Keeping track of the twists and turns of immigration policy and the necessary fixes is a challenge for even the most avid news junkie. Those interested in a deeper understanding of why various measures are included in the immigration bill can get up to speed with the highly accessible history of reform in "Immigration Wars." Only the history can help explain how so many of the authors' recommendations aren't already policy.

For instance, many Americans would be wrong in assuming that a non-citizen committing a crime results in automatic deportation or that there's currently any "normal" path to citizenship. Both of these should be changed to match the intuition of our assumptions. Another example is their proposal that the number of work visas be based on market demand. Bush and Bolick accompany this observation with the illuminating insight that the need for work-based visas should be adjustable apart from congressional action. Under their proposal, Congress would always be able to tweak the formula for determining eligibility, but demand would be freed from the restraint of the inevitable lack of legislative action.

A third example comes in how we think about border security and distinguishing good guys from bad. "It is important to differentiate border security problems involving illegal immigration and drug cartels," the authors note. "Otherwise, immigrants are blamed for violence and other ill consequences for which they are not responsible."

Throughout the book, it is evident that neither of these men sees our current fractured immigration policies as an "us vs. them" problem – an example Congress should follow. "Immigration to me is personal," Bush says in his very first line. "It means my wife and family, as it has for countless Americans since our country was founded." Both authors obviously care deeply about both the citizens and those desiring that privilege. Out of that desire sprang their most important proposal: that all residents of the United States have a thorough understanding of civics and our founding values. Quoting a Bradley Foundation report called E. Pluribus Unum, the authors note, "knowing what America stands for is not a genetic inheritance. It must be learned, both by the next generation and by those who come to this country."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Balancing the rule of law and security with the economic and labor needs of the country is a tension evident throughout the book and every comprehensive immigration bill. Bush and Bolick navigate that fine line with the conviction that saw them through writing it in the first place: that our future depends on solving this problem. "To achieve sustained economic growth for the United States, we need to reform our immigration laws from top to bottom," Bush told me. "We cannot grow our way out of the structural problems we have without young, energetic and productive immigrants. Without immigration reform, our entitlement programs will overwhelm us."

For now, all sides appear to be playing ball. The bill in the Senate is our best shot yet at restoring the seminal values of hope, fairness and opportunity to our immigration policies.

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