As an immigration attorney, people often ask me if and when I expect there to be comprehensive immigration reform. Recently, this issue has become especially pressing because of conflicting news which has made immigration reform appear alternately imminent and far off (if not doomed).
Optimism for reform was very high when House Republicans recently issued proposed guidelines for immigration reform. Given that the Senate had already passed a reform bill, this was seen as a sign of real progress. Shortly thereafter, however, many prominent Republicans said that there will be no immigration legislation this year (or perhaps even during Obama's presidency). As Rep. Raul Labrador stated, there is "overwhelming support for doing nothing this year." I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Labrador. Outside of Congress, I doubt many would argue the immigration system must be fixed- but maybe later.
Nonetheless, his position seems to be prevailing in Congress for now. Furthermore, considering that seemingly imminent immigration reform has been postponed many times over the years, it is a fair question whether it will actually ever happen.
My short answer to whether I think there will be immigration reform is probably, but not this year. There is, however, a longer explanation to my answer, which is provided below. In addition to the bases for my opinion, I would also encourage people to draw their own conclusions, since the tools to assess whether there will be reform do not require expertise in immigration law.
The momentum for comprehensive immigration reform is slow-moving and sporadic, but not going away.
For perspective on the latest setback to comprehensive immigration reform, I think about one of the first times I considered the possibility of a new immigration law coming soon. Right after I opened a small practice in Brooklyn, I told my wife that if reform was passed, we should celebrate such a momentous occasion with dinner at the River Café, a nice restaurant near my office. At the time, immigration reform had been discussed for a few years, and looked like it could happen soon.
That conversation, however, was in 2005. Since then:
- I closed my solo practice for the stability of a larger firm because we had a baby on the way.
- I left the larger firm for Angela Bean and Associates, which was renamed Bean + Lloyd, LLP after I became a partner.
- The "baby" is now 8, and has a younger brother.
- Dinner at the River Café would be trickier, because we haven't lived in Brooklyn in 6 years.
- Despite the optimism, immigration reform obviously didn't materialize in 2005, or 06, or any year thereafter.
- Immigration reform has been declared imminent, an eventual certainty, or a dead issue more times than I can count.
The personal summary is a small, relatively trivial, example of how things have changed while
immigration reform has been considered. For many others, however, the consequences of inaction have been tremendous. Millions of people have been severely impacted, and many lives ruined in the interim, with relatively little progress in that time.
Certainly this long delay is discouraging, and tempers any prediction that reform is right around the corner. The bright side, however, is that the issue has not gone away. Proposed legislation is often abandoned if it does not pass, but the push for immigration reform has persisted and grown, albeit slowly. It is that relentlessness which makes me think eventually there will be reform.
No one likes the current system, but most people think it could be worse- whether they acknowledge it or not.
A Google search of "broken immigration system" yields over 35,000,000 results. It is important to realize, however, that there is an immigration system currently in place, even if it is largely outside the law. In part, economic needs are being met by immigrants working illegally, often without the protections afforded U.S. workers. There are mechanisms to remove people who are here unlawfully or punish those who employ them, but it is neither feasible nor desirable to do so for everyone in violation. While no one could consider this system acceptable, disagreement about which parts are worse leaves us stuck with it.
On one side, there are those who prioritize enforcement, and are opposed to granting what they consider undeserved benefits to people who are here illegally. Some object to providing any sort of status to people who are here illegally, while others favor a temporary status, but not permanent residency, or might insist certain onerous enforcement goals are met before undocumented foreign nationals can regularize their status.. Broadly speaking, those who prioritize enforcement likely oppose any comprehensive reform which is seen as too lenient.
Alternately, others prioritize providing undocumented foreign nationals with legal status and the opportunity for citizenship. They oppose reform efforts which are exclusively, or predominantly, based on enforcement. They may even oppose bills which provide substantial benefits, if they are accompanied by enforcement measures which are consider too harsh.
While neither side has prevailed, both have stopped the other in implementing substantive changes in the law. Though I am unaware of either side saying this directly, at its heart preventing objectionable reform is based on the belief that it is worse than what we have now. As a result, we have a system most believe is terrible, but could be worse.
This tension presents both challenges and promise for comprehensive reform. Given apparently competing interests and priorities, it is very hard to move forward, especially if there is a belief that others are proposing to make things even worse than they are now. This is especially true, when Congress has shown that it is easier to stop a law than pass one. Therefore, it is understandable that immigration reform has not come yet, and why it may not be here right away.
The hope, however, is that a strong comprehensive immigration system addresses both interests. A properly revised immigration system can not only provide immigrants with a way to live here legally and with their rights protected, but also drastically reduce the demand for illegal immigration and employment. With a legal way for the U.S. to meet the societal and economic needs for the contributions of immigrants, people are much less likely to circumvent the law. This could make stricter more enforcement measures less necessary, and less punitive to those who are trying to earn a living lawfully.
Considering that almost no one is happy with our immigration system, and supposedly competing interests can theoretically not only be met, but complement one another, I do think ultimately that something will be done, even if it takes awhile.
You don't have to be an immigration attorney to predict immigration reform's fate or advocate for a system you want. (Being a member of Congress wouldn't hurt, however.)
Now that you've read this, here is one caveat to this and any other immigration attorney prediction about immigration reform- being an expert in immigration law does not necessarily mean being an expert in the process of changing it. Much of the information immigration attorneys review to predict when or if there will be reform comes from publically available news sources.
While the factors above will push the discussion of immigration reform, recent events remind us it is ultimately up to Congress to pass it. Therefore, understanding politics and Congressional procedure are keys to predicting when and if there will be reform, even more than an expertise in the law. Further, the advocates for immigration reform extend well beyond immigration attorneys.
It is true that as an attorney I am well aware of the nuances of proposed laws and why they are necessary. I have actually read the 800+ page Senate bill, and understand very well the importance of comprehensive reform from what I see every day in my work. Therefore, I and many other immigration attorneys are experts in why reform is needed, and comprehending the impact of the various reform proposals.
Generally speaking, however, I do not have any formal expertise in politics or Congressional machinations. Given the importance of the issue, I have educated myself on these topics, but mainly through extensive reading of publically available news sources. I follow some reports from the American Immigration Lawyers Association presented only to members, but nearly all of what I read is available to anyone with an internet connection.
Similarly, there is a very passionate and diverse movement for (and against) comprehensive reform, the vast majority of whom are not immigration attorneys. While most immigration attorneys strongly support the pro-reform movement, we are not necessarily experts in effective organizing or large scale activism. Also, while reform is important to almost every immigration attorney, we do not have nearly as much at stake as those who would be directly benefitted or harmed by immigration reform. Those on the front lines of pushing for reform- especially those impacted by any new law- can provide valuable insight to anyone trying to figure out if and when there will be reform.
There are some immigration attorneys who are also powerful activists and/or experts on Congressional practice. Also, given our legal expertise, immigration attorneys can and should be involved in both the reform activism and analysis of any new law. Still, understanding the law and pushing to change it are distinct skills.
This does not mean you should ignore the predictions of immigration attorneys, however- given the importance of reform to our profession, most of us follow the subject very closely. While many of the sources I read are available to anyone, I certainly follow and consider these issues more than most.
Therefore, while Congress cannot even agree on when or if there will be immigration reform, there is reason to be optimistic that it will be passed- eventually. In the meantime, feel free to consult with immigration attorneys about their opinion, but know that are tools out there if want to take part in the process or make your predictions.
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