National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Prospects for immigration reform rises

By Marilina Sanz


With the continued emergence of the Hispanic vote, prospects for immigration reform in the first session of the 113th Congress are on the rise. President Barack Obama wants to make this a priority next year, and a growing number of Republican leaders are saying it is time to act. Bipartisan agreement is key to comprehensive reform. No major immigration bill has been enacted without it.

There is a difference of opinion on whether reform should be comprehensive or incremental, with the president, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) preferring the comprehensive approach.  House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has also declared that he wants to see immigration taken up next year, but is leaning toward incremental steps.

NACo supports comprehensive immigration reform. NACo President Chris Rodgers has reappointed an immigration reform task force. Its goals include educating Congress on NACo’s views on immigration and keeping its members informed on what is going on in Washington. The task force is co-chaired by Mary Rose Wilcox, supervisor, Maricopa County, Ariz., and Walter Tejada, county board member, Arlington County, Va. Angel  Estrada, freeholder, Union County, N.J. is the vice chair.

“The president and Congress have a great opportunity to fix our broken immigration system in a bipartisan fashion,” Rodgers said. “ With leaders such as Mary Rose, Walter and Angel, our immigration reform task force will ensure that county interests are well represented in the debate.”

The Senate is expected to act first. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) worked on a framework for comprehensive reform several years ago and may revive that effort. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is taking a leadership role, citing the need for reform for economic reasons. New senators, such as Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), may also play a key role. When Flake was in the House, he responsored  comprehensive reform with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) several years ago.

In addition to immigration advocates, there are many other stakeholders in the debate, including the faith community, businesses and unions. Several of NACo’s sister organizations, particularly the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have similar policies in support of comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, state and local groups worked with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on a provision that would have given grants to states and local governments for education and health related to legalization. 

While immigration reform, regardless of whether it is comprehensive or in stages, is complex, there are several key issues that will be included.  First, any bill that is enacted will include some form of enhanced enforcement.  Second, everybody agrees that the system is broken and legal immigration itself needs to be reformed, although the issues about visa reform are not without controversy.

One of the most difficult issues will be a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for the undocumented. While there seems to be growing agreement that this issue must be solved, there are many obstacles. For example, some previous proposals included a provision that individuals seeking legalization would have to leave the country to apply for it, presumably at a border consulate. 

Regardless of the final details about legalization, there are two possible starting points for negotiations. One is the DREAM Act, which would give a path to citizenship to individuals who entered the country before the age of 16 and would also allow states to qualify those students for in-state tuition. The DREAM Act passed the House in 2010 but failed to clear the Senate. Since then, several states have taken action to allow in-state tuition, and the Obama administration has allowed those students to stay in the country.

The second starting point of negotiation could be the “AgJobs” bill, which would establish a pilot program for agricultural workers and their families that could lead to citizenship.