The Agenda

Thoughts on the Rubio Immigration Proposal

My latest column for Reuters Opinion is on comprehensive immigration reform. After making the case that immigration is best understand as a core economic policy issue, I try to address the thorny issue of what the U.S. ought to do about America’s large population of unauthorized immigrants. I contrast Sen. Marco Rubio’s call for allowing unauthorized immigrants to regularize their status and to eventually apply to become permanent residents with Peter Skerry’s notion of barring unauthorized immigrants from attaining citizenship while allowing them to become “permanent non-citizen residents.” What I failed to do in the column, however, is draw out the underlying similarities between the proposals, and indeed the differences between the Rubio approach and the traditional “path to citizenship” favored by immigration advocacy groups like America’s Voice and the Obama administration. 

The reason I admire the Skerry approach is that it acknowledges the moral concerns of voters exercised by the prospect that unauthorized immigrants will be given a path to citizenship, despite having violated U.S. immigration laws. Allowing unauthorized immigrants to become permanent non-citizen residents recognizes that there is no consensus around a hard attrition strategy, in which all unauthorized immigrants, including those who have been residing in the U.S. for a long enough period of time as to have established themselves in the economic and social lives of their communities, will be strongly encouraged to self-deport due to a progressive tightening of immigration enforcement. Frankly, I am not unsympathetic to the case for a hard attrition strategy. Though I am a strong believer in the value of legal immigration, and particularly skilled immigration, I have long been of the view that it is not unreasonable for the U.S. to enforce its immigration laws, despite the fact that doing so will necessarily involve uprooting families that are firmly rooted in the U.S. As Skerry observes, however, this view is not universally shared. Rather, my view seems to be the view of a vocal minority of diminishing influence. 

Given that a large number of U.S. voters find a hard attrition strategy unpalatable, the question is how we going about regularizing the status of unauthorized immigrants so as not to encourage the influx of unauthorized immigrants in the future. Apart from Skerry’s normative insight, i.e., permanent non-citizenship reflects the gravity of breaking U.S. immigration laws, he makes the convincing case that immigration enforcement is immensely difficult, particularly in light of the diversity and geographical dispersion of the unauthorized immigrant population. 

Rubio starts from the same place as Skerry. That is, he both accepts that a hard attrition strategy is unviable given the scale and rootedness of the unauthorized immigrant population — which numbers over 11 million, nearly two-thirds of whom have resided in the U.S. for over ten years and nearly half of whom are the parents of minor children — and that allowing unauthorized immigrants to have an edge over aspiring lawful immigrants in securing permanent resident status would be unfair. 

The key difference is perhaps more trivial than I suggest in my column. Right now, those who violate U.S. immigration laws are barred from applying to permanent resident status for ten years, but not for life. Skerry’s approach would regularize the status of unauthorized immigrants yet would bar them from becoming law permanent residents eligible for citizenship. Rubio seeks to regularize the status of unauthorized immigrants who come forward, pay back taxes and an appropriate fine, etc. After ten years, these individuals will be allowed to apply for permanent resident status, which might in turn lead to citizenship down the line. Note that these individuals will be allowed to apply for permanent resident status. If U.S. immigration law changes to prioritize skills, English language proficiency, and assets, as I think it should, the immigrants who will be granted permanent resident status will be those who have demonstrated a capacity for economic self-reliance. 

Though I continue to think that Skerry’s approach has its virtues, it is fair to say that Rubio’s approach does capture the gravity of the violation of U.S. immigration laws. Moreover, it might be more politically realistic. Immigration advocates who want a quite easy path to citizenship have gained considerable momentum, and the Rubio proposal potentially represents a more politically viable middle ground than the Skerry approach, which could be described as excessively punitive. Indeed, one could argue that the Skerry approach would have made more sense in 2007, when the Bush administration sought to secure the support of conservative Republicans in the House for its ill-fated comprehensive immigration reform proposal. Had the Bush White House proposed permanent non-citizen resident status for unauthorized immigrants, it might have defanged at least some of the opposition from advocates of immigration restriction, thus squaring a difficult circle. But opponents of comprehensive immigration reform no longer have the upper hand, and the Rubio approach allows for a long lead time that would encourage cultural assimilation. 

I continue to believe that a temporary guest worker program is a mistake, and I want to be sure that Rubio’s ultimate bill moves us to a Canadian- or Australian-style skills-centered immigration policy in exchange for the regularization of the status of unauthorized immigrants. But there is no question that Sen. Rubio has moved the ball forward, and that his approach reflects core conservatives priorities.


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