Is Immigration Reform Really Going Anywhere?

A bipartisan immigration bill made it to the Senate floor this week. Hundreds of amendments have already been considered, and many more will probably crop up. Host Michel Martin looks at some of the more interesting and controversial provisions.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, 50 years ago this summer, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. So we're asking you, what's your dream for today? Listeners have already been sending us tweets. We'll hear some of them later in the program and we'll tell you how you can participate if you would like. But first, we want to talk about a bill that represents a dream for millions of people in this country right now, and that's immigration reform. A bill that could significantly overhaul immigration policy in this country for the first time in decades is in front of Congress now. The bill has already been through many revisions and hundreds of amendments have been offered, touching on subjects ranging from new immigrants' access to healthcare and gun rights and same-sex marriage rights. President Obama, earlier this week, urged Congress to keep pushing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENT OBAMA SPEECH)

BARACK OBAMA: This much is clear, if you genuinely believe we need to fix our broken immigration system, there's no good reason to stand in the way of this bill.

MARTIN: We thought this was a good time to talk about some of the debates that have come up around the bill and to hear what our guests have been hearing from people across the country who are following the issue as closely as they are. Ali Noorani is the executive director for the National Immigration Forum. That group tends to favor more expansive immigration policy. Thank you for joining us once again, Ali.

ALI NOORANI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Mark Krikorian. He's the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which tends to favor a more restrictionist approach. Mark Krikorian, thank you so much for joining us once again.

MARK KRIKORIAN: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So the first thing I wanted to ask you, Ali, are what do you make of the flood of amendments? I mean, do you think that these are generally a good faith effort to shape the policy or are they really efforts to kill the bill?

NOORANI: Well, I mean, what we've had up to this point is a transparent, open process, and frankly, this is the way that America wants their Congress to work. You know, the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group in the Senate, you know, came up with what we think is a very, very good first step. The Judiciary Committee went through their markup process, over 300 amendments filed, a hundred endorsed, I believe, many, most on a bipartisan basis. I mean, this is the way Washington, D.C. needs to work. And frankly, no other issue enjoys this kind of bipartisan support and momentum.

MARTIN: Mark, what do you think?

KRIKORIAN: Well, the point of amendments is, there are many goals to them. One of them might be to kill the bill. One of them might be to change the bill by somebody who could vote for it if the amendment passed. But many of them are designed to illuminate something about the underlying bill that people don't get. And the key issue here is that the basic structure of this bill is such that the illegal immigrants get legalized up front, right away, well within a few months. And then the promises of enforcement are spread out over some time in the future and may or may not happen. And so there's actually been a number of amendments, both in committee and on the floor, to try to flip that, to say the legalization couldn't start until certain enforcement things happened first. And those were voted down in committee and will probably be voted down on the floor. But the point of it is not so much to kill the measure, but to make sure people understand that this is amnesty first and promises of enforcement put off into the future. And I think that's a key problem because the public broadly does, in fact, favor, or at least not oppose, legalizing certain long-term illegal immigrants who have kids and they're not drug dealers, that kind of thing. But the enforcement stuff has to be in place first, 'cause otherwise it's not going to happen, as we saw in 1986.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the two of these issues separately. I'll use the phrase, kind of, shape the immigrant experience. I'll put it that way, in terms of there are bills connected to restricting access to guns for undocumented immigrants. There's a provision that will allow immigrants to apply for permanent residency with a same-sex spouse, so there's that one set. And then there's the set that, Mark, you were just talking around border security. So why don't we just start there. You know, President Obama said that the current version of the bill would put into place the tightest border security America has ever seen. Mark, I take it you don't agree with that.

KRIKORIAN: Well, to some degree, yes and no. Let me put it this way, some of the measures are would-be real advances in - remember, it's not just border security but it's immigration security, 'cause every airport's a border, you know.

MARTIN: Yeah, okay.

KRIKORIAN: But the question is, will these things actually happen, will these promises be kept in, once the legalization is out of the way. And we've seen this, not even just in immigration, but even in tax issues where there's a deal, raise taxes now and we'll cut spending, you know, in the future as a kind of deal. It never happens. The legalization, once it's underway and everybody has their legal, their work card, their Social Security account, all of that stuff, the political incentive to actually follow through on the enforcement to fund it and all of that evaporates. And I guarantee that's the way it's going to turn out.

MARTIN: Okay, Ali Noorani, what's your perspective on this? I mean, one of the amendments that Mark is talking about was submitted by Senator John Cornyn, a Republican of Texas who says that he wants to introduce a measure that would require certain triggers, like a certain, like, apprehension rate of illegal crossings to be met before unlawful, undocumented immigrants can transition to permanent legal status. So what's your take on this?

NOORANI: Well, at this point, we have an enforcement-only immigration system. We're spending $18 billion a year on immigration enforcement, and this is a report that was done by the Migration Policy Institute. And that's the largest federal enforcement program in the government, period. This bill would actually increase that amount to nearly, or just over, $20 billion a year on immigration enforcement, if not more. So - and the other thing is that this administration has deported more individuals than any previous administration, so if there's one thing that the Obama administration has done, it's enforced our immigration laws. And we haven't been terribly happy about that in many cases because we feel like it's been a rather large dragnet. What Senator Cornyn is putting out there, we think, is a impractical and unaffordable way to improve this legislation. We do want to see improvement in border security. We do think ports of entry need an investment. But, you know, to link border enforcement to the ability of 11 million people to get on a road, a tough but achievable road to citizenship, well, you know, puts them at the mercy of a political process. So as Mark said, budgeting is controlled by Congress. When we get to that year nine in Cornyn's amendment, what's to say that Congress says, okay, well, we're going to reduce funding along the border just so you don't meet that trigger and therefore, all these 11 million people with their families are stuck in this provisional status.

MARTIN: Well, let's wheel around, 'cause we could spend all day...

NOORANI: Right.

MARTIN: ...Talking about just the border security aspects. Let's talk a little bit more about what happens with immigrants who are already here, who are trying to transition to permanent legal status. One of the amendments that's gotten some attention is a proposal to include a five-year ban on Affordable Care Act subsidies for immigrants and restrict their access to tax credits. Mark, what's the logic there?

KRIKORIAN: Well, the point to those kind of amendments try to limit, are to limit the cost, the fallout for taxpayers, because the fact is that the large majority of illegal immigrants don't have high school educations. They're working in relatively low-paid jobs, which means they pay little in taxes and inevitably use a lot in government services. Not because they're lazy, I mean, they're working. It's just that the way our system of public benefits works is that it's actually designed to subsidize people, the working poor. So the point is legalizing illegal immigrants is going to cost money. There are elements in this bill to try to minimize that, to postpone certain eligibility for a number of years, this kind of thing, but that's basically the point, limit the fallout for taxpayers. My concern with that kind of thing is that when you admit less skilled people into a modern, postindustrial, knowledge-based economy, it's going to cost you money. There's really no way to let them in and wall them off from the welfare state. The only thing to do is not admit them in the first place.

MARTIN: Well, but the bill also makes a shift toward a skills based immigration system.

KRIKORIAN: Only a little bit.

MARTIN: That's clearly kind of the intention of the system. So before we let you go, we're clearly, kind of, hearing the same philosophical, perspective difference of opinion about the costs and benefits of immigration or whether it's restrictionist or the expansionist, kind of, what or however you see it now. So, Ali, this, you know, the question is, I mean, just strategically reading here, is there enough consensus somewhere to achieve an agreement at the end of this?

NOORANI: What's happening right now is completely different from what we saw in 2006 and 2007, when immigration reform was on the docket, if you will, in a comprehensive way. At this point, yes, we have support from Democrats, Latinos, Asians, labor. But at this point, we have incredible support from, the way we put it, those who hold a Bible, wear a badge, or own a business, conservative and moderate faith, law-enforcement, and business leaders across the country, in the middle. I mean, and these are places like Missouri, Idaho, Utah, the Carolinas, where we need conservative voters to provide support for their conservative members, that their energy and commitment to this issue is, you know, like nothing we've ever seen. And that's why we're very confident we're going to see bills move through the House and the Senate and we're going to be at the President's desk this year.

MARTIN: Mark?

KRIKORIAN: No, it's not going to happen. I mean, the stuff that Ali is talking about is real. I mean, his organization has done a pretty good job of putting together this kind of coalition politics stuff. The problem is it's simply another example of elite versus public split on immigration. 'Cause immigration has a right-left split, but much more important is the up-down split. Because you say, well, there's bipartisan support. Yes, there are pro-amnesty business owners and pro-amnesty heads of religious denominations and pro-amnesty other people, but the constituents, the public don't agree with it. This is an up versus down issue, not really a right versus left.

MARTIN: Well, this clearly won't be the last time we're talking about this then. So thank you both so much for joining us once again. Mark Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. Ali Noorani is executive director of the National Immigration Forum, both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thank you.

KRIKORIAN: Thank you.

NOORANI: Thank you.

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