Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What Happens in Vegas

We're not even halfway through the week yet, and already it feels so momentous. All of a sudden, comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) has transformed from a distant policy wonk pipe dream into a real possibility in the 113th Congress. The Senate made its first move Sunday night, and today is President Obama's turn to make some noise.

And make noise he did at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.

What's really fascinating about today's big revelation is just how much Mr. President is now willing to stick his neck out for a truly comprehensive bill. And yes, that includes a group of immigrants who don't always get talked about but nonetheless exist. Today, President Obama demanded a CIR package that addresses LGBTQ immigrant families.

A Democratic source said: "Same-sex couples will be part of his proposal." A second source confirmed that, unlike the Senate framework released Monday, same-sex bi-national couples — those with one American and one foreign partner — will be included in the White House principles.

The decision by Obama seeks to remedy what advocates for same-sex couples view as one of the most searing inequalities under the existing federal limit on marriage to one man and one woman: LGBT American citizens simply have no way to confer citizenship on their romantic partners, something that is automatic — if not always simple — for straight couples.

Under current law, such same-sex couples, even when married under state law, are not eligible for the green cards that opposite-sex couples can receive. Foreign partners of same-sex couples have in the past found their green card applications denied — often forcing couples to separate or move abroad.

Apparently, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) had agreed to ditch inclusion of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) in the Senate immigration "grand bargain" because he didn't want to risk losing Republican votes. So far, he's said a UAFA amendment will be allowed in committee, but there's no guarantee it can pass.

Today, President Obama signaled his willingness to at least bypass this part of the "Gang of 8" compromise and fight for immigration equality. In addition, he stressed the need to act with fairness. And he stressed the need to act without prejudice.

When debating who is allowed the privilege of being a United States citizen, "it's easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of us versus them," Obama said in Las Vegas, Nevada. "And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them. We forget that. It is really important for us to remember our history. Unless you are one of the first Americans, Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you."

Obama continued: "When each new wave of immigrants arrived, they faced resistance from those who were already here. They faced hardship. They faced racism. They faced ridicule. But over time as they went about their daily lives, as they earned a living, as they raised a family, as they built a community, as their kids went to school here they did their part to build the nation."

Another firm line in the sand that President Obama drew was on an earned path to citizenship. Today, Obama signaled that he wants to see one, a real one. Some Congressional Republicans have been declaring the new Senate bill to be "amnesty", while some immigrant rights activists have wondered if the Senate bill can realistically deal with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Today, Obama made clear that he wants a realistic way to fairly treat these people.

Oh, and President Obama also included more border security and labor law enforcement in his CIR proposal. However, he also reiterated what his administration has already done on security & enforcement. We'll have to see if he can go along with the "security triggers" in the Senate bill (or if he tries to change them).

And we'll have to see how Obama's overall plan meshes with the new Senate deal. So far, they seem to be mostly alike. There are just a few key policy differences, such as inclusion of LGBTQ families and the path to earned citizenship, that will need to be worked out.

The biggest difference was on border security. Obama, like the Gang of Eight in the Senate, called for a set of technological and personnel investments to prevent illegal immigration as well as a streamlined process to track people who overstay their visa illegally. But the Senate’s plan included an additional requirement that border security measures go into effect before currently undocumented immigrants can apply for a green card, a prerequisite to citizenship. It also would create a commission of Southwestern officials and community leaders to monitor the implementation of the security measures, although senators suggested it would not have veto power over the “trigger” for permanent residency applications.

On citizenship, both Obama and the senators suggested an earned path in which current undocumented immigrants would have to pay a fine, back taxes, pass a background check, and wait until green card backlogs had been cleared by legal immigrants before being considered for permanent residency. The details on this process are critical, since experts warn that the current visa system could delay citizenship for many undocumented workers by decades —perhaps even a lifetime — without further changes. [...]

“We all agree these men and women should have to earn their way to citzenship, but for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a path to citizenship,” Obama said. The president added that it “won’t be a quick process, but it will be a fair process”

We'll also have to see where Harry Reid falls in this debate. So far, he's generally been supportive of the Senate deal. But now that President Obama has his own guidelines (and he wants to see them fulfilled in whatever finally emerges from Congress), will Reid be OK with tweaking the Senate bill to keep the President and progressives on board?

And finally, there's the issue of the Republicans. Dean Heller so far likes the Senate bill. Will he ultimately vote for it, even if it's been tweaked? And we've yet to hear a peep out of the usually loquacious Joe Heck. And of course, there's the matter of House Speaker John Boehner allowing any CIR bill to even reach the House floor.

So today has been quite the eventful day here in Southern Nevada. We'll just have to see if what happens in Vegas can finally turn the DREAM (Act and the rest of CIR) into reality.

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