Five Concerns about the Gang of Eight’s Immigration Bill
Conservatives raise hard questions about what’s in — and what’s not in — the proposal.

Members of the Senate "Gang of Eight" at a press conference April 18, 2013


Andrew Stiles

Back Taxes
The notion of forcing illegal immigrants to pay “back taxes” as a condition for legalization has been a key element of the debate over reform. Some proponents of the Gang’s legislation have argued that this back-taxes requirement proves that the bill is not offering pure “amnesty.” Here’s the catch: The Gang’s bill does not strictly require the payment of back taxes at all; it merely requires that current illegal immigrants pay “any applicable federal tax liability,” defined as “all Federal income taxes assessed.” Taxes “assessed” refers to liabilities that have been officially recorded by the IRS, whether by way of an official tax filing or an IRS audit. But the “off-the-books” nature of illegal immigration means it is highly unlikely that either scenario would apply to those seeking legal status. Furthermore, the bill does not require applicants for legal status to submit tax-specific information, such as employment history or wages earned, to either the IRS or DHS.

Politico described the Gang of Eight negotiations surrounding the back-tax requirement as follows:

Negotiators had to choose between a hard-line approach favored by Republicans, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that would have required immigrants and employers to painstakingly piece together a tax history so the government could collect what is owed and a less burdensome option of focusing on people who already have a past-due bill with the Internal Revenue Service. They chose the milder approach and punted the details to the Treasury Department and IRS to hash out down the road.

“We’ll leave that up to the IRS to figure how we do it,” Senator Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), a member of the Gang, told Politico. This is probably not the most effective pitch to win over skeptical conservatives.

English-Language Requirement
It is often assumed that a requirement to learn English will be a necessary component of any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants; this is a concern particularly among those who consider assimilation of the newly legalized population to be a priority. However, the Gang’s legislation does not include a strict language requirement. The bill refers to current law, which requires applicants for citizenship to have “an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language.”

But even if an immigrant does not meet that standard, he or she can qualify to become a legal permanent resident if, according to the text of the bill, the applicant “is satisfactorily pursuing a course of study, pursuant to standards established by the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Secretary, to achieve an understanding of English.”

“Merit-Based” System
Backers of the Gang’s bill have stressed the need not only to reform the illegal-immigration system, but also to reform legal immigration policy by transitioning to a more “merit-based” system, which would prioritize high-skilled workers. The bill takes steps in this direction, but critics say it has the potential to cause a massive influx of low-skilled workers in the coming years via chain migration.

For example, the bill would ultimately provide visas for the children and spouses of newly legalized immigrants, regardless of skill, and gives the DHS secretary considerable discretion to make it easier for family members to immigrate and achieve legal status, even if they have been recently deported or have committed fraud on their applications for admissions. Expansion of the number of visas for guest workers and agricultural workers would also increase the population of low-skilled workers. And according to a recent Fox News poll, a majority of American voters (55 percent) think all types of legal immigration should be reduced.

Conservative lawmakers opposed to the Gang’s proposed legislation promise to continue raising these concerns with their colleagues and with the American people so that, at the very least, Congress won’t rush to pass complex, highly consequential legislation without knowing what’s in it.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.