The Senate Immigration Bill Is a Special Interest Nightmare

It's up to the House to restore sanity to this legislative process.

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House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., left, and Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., right, listen to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 22, 2013, during the committee's hearing on immigration reform.

In less than triumphal fashion the United States Senate gave its approval to a comprehensive package of immigration reforms and then promptly blew town for the July 4th recess.

It is a decision many of them will likely live to regret. Though the version of the "Gang of Eight" bill that eventually won passage is popular in many quarters, especial those in Washington, it is almost uniformly reviled throughout America. It does too much with too little specificity, does not address the border security issue with any surety, and leaves a lot to be desired in the way it treats illegals who are already in the United States and who may desire to remain once the new law takes effect. In short, despite the best of intentions of many honorable men, including Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio who recognize that a 19th century immigration system designed to keep people out of the country is of little use in a 21st century high-tech global economy, what the Senate passed is a mess.

Now the bill moves to the House, where it is likely dead on arrival. That doesn't mean the issue is dead, just that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and House Speaker John Boehner have indicated they have no intention of taking up the immigration reform plan the Senate passed. Instead, they are going to go their own way.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

This is probably for the best, as many congressmen and senators will no doubt agree once they return to Washington having been thoroughly pummeled by their constituents over the issue while back in their states and districts. What the Senate passed – nearly 2,000 pages, weighing 24 pounds, and generally unread – sounds too much like Obamacare for any but the most charitable of voters to have confidence that it will really fix the problem. If House members are smarter than the Senate, and they usually think they are, they should approach the problem piecemeal, breaking it down in essential parts and pass bills one at a time.

The first bill should be one that deals with border security. Never mind that most people in this country illegally first came here legally, on student or work visas and then failed to return to their country of origin when their visa expired. Most Americans believe the best way to get a handle on the problem is to make it much more difficult to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without permission and documentation.

In brief, a bill that provided for a real border fence, increased border patrols, real metrics for determining success as written into the bill by Congress rather than designed by the bureaucracy inside the Department of Homeland Security, and a strong trigger mechanism that would keep other elements of immigration reform from becoming law until the border could be certified as secure would do much to calm the fears of the ordinary American.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

Without meaningful border security none of the other reforms would matter very much at all. At the same time a "border security first" bill could also be written to strengthen the reporting requirements for immigrants in the United States legally but on a temporary basis, making it easier to detain and deport those that overstay their visas before they have much of a chance to put down anything resembling permanent roots.

The second House bill would cover, broadly, the idea of work, which is what brings most immigrants to America in the first place. The people who come here, and who bring their families here do so because they are seeking some combination of economic, political and religious freedom. They are not coming here to sponge off the American taxpayer and the welfare system, conventional wisdom notwithstanding. Goodlatte and the House Judiciary Committee could craft a bill that makes it easier for temporary agricultural workers to come into the United States while increasing the certainty that they return home again while also making it easier for companies to recruit high-tech specialty workers from other countries without interference from the alphabet soup of federal agencies that think, often at the behest of big labor, that they know best how U.S. companies should be managed. It makes little sense to raise the cap on the number of high-tech visas than can be issued to workers, as the Senate bill does, while at the same time making it harder for companies to hire workers who get those visas.

The last step would be a legislative measure that sets out a path to regularize the status of those living illegally in the United States and desiring to remain here permanently. There are some who will never participate in this conversation, to whom it all comes down to "What part of ‘illegal' don't you understand?" Nevertheless it is a conversation worth having.

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There is a big difference between an illegal immigrant who has come to the United States and is, like the stereotype, living and working on an underground economy dependent on the largess of the welfare state and one who works, raises children responsibly, does not seek government assistance, and is generally no different – save for their residency status – than other people in the community. The challenge, and it is indeed a hard one, is to develop a program for dealing fairly with them all in ways that are not disruptive to the society as a whole, does not rip families apart, and does not reward lawbreakers at the expense of the law abiding.

Again, if the House was smart, it would take these bills up one at a time, moving them through the chamber in regular order and sending them to the Senate for action. Majority Leader Harry Reid could then decide if he and the other Democrats who make up the majority in that chamber would act on each bill as the basis for going to a conference committee or continue to press the House to handle the issue comprehensively or not at all.

America needs to fix its immigration system. The real issue before us is how to do it in a way that benefits the most people possible. The Senate bill is a special-interest nightmare that is too unwieldy to go much further. The House has the opportunity to restore sanity to the debate and to produce something that could actually pass. It should make the most of it.

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