Three Pieces of Republican Legislation to Inform the 2017 Immigration Debate

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court halting of President Obama’s DAPA and DACA+ programs, many immigration advocates are pivoting their focus back to where it belongs: starting comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) conversations in the next Congress.

A natural place to begin is to look at the 2013 reform bill, which passed the Senate, but was never picked up by the House. By investigating legislation introduced by current congressional Democratic leaders, we can help determine where a new reform bill will start in 2017.

Perhaps the most important analysis involves examining current Republican bills to determine focus issues and established language that is ripe for easy incorporation into a comprehensive package next year. The 2013 debate makes it clear that House Republicans must drive aspects of comprehensive immigration reform. Involving GOP leaders and furthering Republican goals is a crucial part of passing reform. Without a House package that Republicans can own, reform is impossible.

Here are three Republican reforms that may inform the comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) debate in 2017:

Recognizing American Children Act:

The Recognizing American Children (RAC) Act, introduced by Republicans Carlos Curbelo (FL) and Mike Coffman (CO), and co-sponsored by Bob Dold (IL), allows certain undocumented immigrants serving in the military, enrolled in a graduate college, or legally working to stay in the U.S., and be eligible for not just legal status, but citizenship. While narrow in its reach and limited in its support, the RAC Act is still a breath of fresh air for pro-immigration Republicans.

The three House Republicans endorsing citizenship for a segment of the undocumented population is a positive step towards encouraging immigrants without legal status to step out of the shadows. Introducing this legislation amidst Trump-mania demonstrates substantial support, and that these lawmakers may be the party’s potential champions for CIR moving forward.

Willing Workers and Willing Employers Act:

Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a key ally for immigration advocates, introduced the Willing Workers and Willing Employers bill that addresses existing gaps in the temporary visa programs for seasonal workers.

Any comprehensive package should include expansions to low and medium-skilled guest worker programs that seek to regularize immigrant laborers and fill worker shortages of U.S. employers. Senator Flake’s bill would help shuffle undocumented workers into a regulated system, and bring stability to seasonal work. It’s a simple fix to a heavily restricted visa program that also contains protective measures to ensure American workers are prioritized.

State and City-Based Immigration Reforms:

Congress is not the only player in immigration reform. In 2015, Republican members of the Texas state legislature introduced bills proposing a state-based guest worker program for new immigrants. Similarly, in 2016, Republican Massachusetts Governor Baker approved an entrepreneur-in-residence program to retain foreign students in the Massachusetts area.

These examples of localized immigration reform deserve a voice in a national debate, and are a win for Republicans championing states’ rights and expansions to legal immigration. Federal legislation that upholds these programs returns to local lawmakers the power to respond to labor shortages and population loss by allowing them to more closely regulate immigration based on individual state needs.

Moreover, with Republican governors outnumbering Democrats, reforms rooted on the state or local level amplify GOP voices in the immigration debate.

All signs point to a comprehensive immigration reform debate in 2017. Hillary Clinton has made it clear that immigration reform is a first-100-days priority for her, and with Paul Ryan and Chuck Schumer leading the House and Senate, a debate seems plausible.

The question now is what will that package look like. The three ideas above present solutions that Republicans already back, and should again in 2017. The obvious missing component includes enforcement provisions, which we can expect to be substantial. Ranging from new financial and technological investments on the southern border to expanded E-Verify and everything in between, it’s safe to say Republicans will bargain hard for these measures as part of a deal.

Comprehensive reform must include Republicans in order to pass. If Republicans double down on Trump-ian immigration policies — ending birthright citizenship, cutting off Muslim immigration, insisting on deportation instead of any legalization — the broken immigration system will likely continue for many years.

But, if the GOP pivots back to understanding and messaging the benefits of immigration, including economic possibilities, reuniting families, increasing security through identification, and ensuring American safety through practical regulations, then CIR is entirely possible.

With eyes on immigration reform, 2017 is shaping up to be a big year on Capitol Hill.


Originally published at niskanencenter.org on August 26, 2016.