After winning election to the U.S. Senate last year, I expected to be teaming up often with my fellow conservative Marco Rubio (R., Fla.). What I never expected was that Senator Rubio and I would be working on immigration-reform legislation with liberals like Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (D., Ill.).
While conservatives are justified in their skepticism of any legislation that Senators Schumer and Durbin sign off on, I hope we don’t let their association with the bill that is now before the Senate overshadow the conservative elements that Republicans have included.
The first section of the bill addresses border security. It requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop a “Comprehensive Southern Border Security Strategy” and appropriates $3 billion to implement the plan with resources such as military-developed surveillance systems, additional Border Patrol and customs agents, and unmanned and fixed-wing aircraft. DHS is also required to develop the “Southern Border Fencing Strategy,” with $1.5 billion to ensure that all parts of the border that need a fence have a fence (some parts of the border are so mountainous that a fence would be impractical and redundant).
Because DHS hasn’t always addressed the situation at the border realistically, the bill requires that if they do not achieve a 90 percent effectiveness rate within five years (meaning that 9 of every 10 illegal border crossers is apprehended), another $2 billion will be spent to implement recommendations from a commission of border stakeholders, who, for the first time, will have meaningful authority to increase border security. This funding can be directed toward more manpower, technology, and infrastructure strategies.
Additionally, the bill takes strategies and resources that have been effective in certain parts of the border and expands them to the entire border. Among these are 3,500 new customs agents, authorization to deploy the National Guard at the border, funding for more border-crossing prosecutions, increased funding for Operation Stonegarden (a program of DHS grants to local law-enforcement agencies to improve border security), more Border Patrol stations and forward operating bases, access to all federal lands, funding for improved radio communications in isolated parts of the border, reauthorized funding for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (to reimburse state and local law-enforcement agencies for jailing illegal immigrants), and deployment of Department of Defense border radar equipment.
Another conservative concern with potential immigration reform has been the issue of amnesty. This bill ensures that no illegal immigrant will be given amnesty or rewarded for illegal behavior. In fact, no illegal immigrant will be “given” anything.
Before any illegal immigrant can adjust to a non-citizenship provisional status, DHS must have submitted the border-security and border-fencing strategies. Only then will these immigrants be able to legally work in the country — but they will not be eligible for government assistance (unemployment, welfare, Obamacare, etc.). Moreover, to be eligible for this non-citizenship provisional status, illegal immigrants must pay a $500 fine, pass a background check, and pay fees. And before most illegal immigrants can adjust from this provisional status to being lawful permanent residents, the border-security and border-fencing strategies will have to be operational and functioning. Additionally, every employer in the country will have to use the E-Verify system to check the immigration status of every employee hire. E-Verify is in use in Arizona, but this bill will make it mandatory across the country.
Only after ten years can these provisional-status immigrants apply for a green card (which is still short of U.S. citizenship). In order to earn a green card, they will have to pay all back taxes, maintain employment in the U.S., learn English and civics, and wait until everyone who applied for a green card before them has been processed. It will likely be close to 13 years before current illegal immigrants begin to become eligible for citizenship. It is a long and difficult path, but even though some law-abiding and productive members of our society will eventually earn that opportunity, not all of them will take it.
Other measures important to conservatives, like an overhaul of the legal-immigration system with a shift to a more merit-based process and a more robust temporary-worker program, are also included in the bill.
Conservatives worried that President Obama or Secretary Napolitano will be able to expedite the legalization sections of the bill while dragging their feet on border security should consider that the border-security measures come first, while the status-adjustment portions of the bill will take many years. It’s also worth noting that it’s likely that this process will occur under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
As this bill moves through regular order and is debated and amended, conservatives may not always agree on every aspect. But I think we can all agree that the status quo is unacceptable, and I’m convinced that this legislation moves us in a positive direction.
— Jeff Flake is the junior U.S. senator from Arizona.