Reforming Immigration Reform
Five ways to fix the Gang of Eight’s legislation

Sen. Marco Rubio take questions at a press conference April 18. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)


Yuval Levin

3. Require civic education. Our approach to immigration must be grounded in an idea of citizenship — in the end, we are discussing how to elevate foreign newcomers to the exalted status of Americans and initiating them into our cultural and political traditions. The Gang of Eight bill does almost nothing to advance that cause, and most of what goes by the name of integration in the bill involves signing people up for the new RPI status, not teaching them anything about what it means to become an American. This is more like community organizing than civic education. Assimilation is no simple matter, of course, but there are some straightforward steps that might help.

The bill should be amended to require illegal immigrants applying for the new RPI status to pass the very simple English-language and civics exams that legal immigrants must pass to become citizens today. They might, for instance, be permitted to file their applications for RPI status (and receive a confirmation of that filing that would enable them to work legally while the application is considered), but then be required to pass these exams before their application could be approved — and therefore before they are allowed to travel abroad and receive the further benefits of RPI status. Many of these individuals have actually been here longer than people ordinarily applying for citizenship, and so should not have trouble reaching the minimal levels of competency involved in passing these tests. Before they can apply for a green card at the end of their ten years of RPI status, moreover, they should be required to complete an approved course in American history and civics (the design of which should take account of the important concerns raised recently by John Fonte and Althea Nagai).

These are hardly onerous requirements, and in fact they are largely symbolic in nature. But in a process of acculturation, symbols matter, and America should assert the importance of civic education and assimilation.

4. Verify sooner. The new employment-verification system established by the bill takes far too long to get into place. Employers with more than 5,000 employees have to use it for all new workers starting two years after DHS publishes regulations implementing the system, those with more than 500 workers have three years, and everyone else has four years. There is no serious reason for such a long delay. The system should begin after one year for all employers, and over the first year of operation, it should require verification of all existing employees as well as new hires.

5. Cut the pork. The Gang of Eight bill includes a variety of narrowly tailored and often state-specific giveaways and favors. On page 817, we find a special provision for “meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers.” On page 767, we find a favor for ski instructors. On page 774 is a special protection for foreigners brought to America — mostly to Florida, one imagines — to perform maintenance on cruise ships. There are surely many more.

Obviously such special goodies have long been part of how Congress passes large and politically complicated pieces of legislation. But that’s no excuse for doing it here. The bill should be systematically stripped of such overly specific provisions. And if we’re stripping overly specific provisions, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of defining the hourly wages of immigrant farm workers to the second decimal place, either (seriously, that nonsense starts on page 228 with $9.37 in 2014).

The point of these proposed categories of amendments is not to scuttle the bill but to save it. They are intended to make the bill more responsive to our economic realities, our civic obligations, and our commitment to the rule of law. They would retain the basic structure of the Gang of Eight’s approach to immigration, but address some of its key weaknesses, some of which were surely intentional, others perhaps not. Many Democrats might dislike them, of course, but they would not find it easy to justify a vote against them, or against a final bill because of them.

The bill that would result from such changes would be far from perfect, but it would be worth passing — and I would wager it would stand a far better chance of reaching the president’s desk.

— Yuval Levin is editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.