On June 27, 2013, the Senate passed S. 744, an ambitious, bipartisan comprehensive reform of our immigration system. Although far from perfect, it represented a genuine effort to wrestle with the complex, confusing, and highly emotional train wreck that has become our immigration system. In the months that followed, a small bipartisan team in the House tried to forge a similar compromise, and when that failed, Democrats introduced HR 15, a modified companion to S. 744. Some Members of Congress have given up waiting for House leaderships to act on any immigration bills, let alone HR 15, while others think the window is still open for a tiny bit longer. Either way, S. 744’s birthday party is a somber affair, a bittersweet victory with no clear end in sight. This observation should not diminish the importance of the anniversary, which remains a tribute to what can be accomplished when people work together.
Here are some of the lasting lessons from these comprehensive reform bills.
- It is not impossible to write a comprehensive bill nor is it impossible to pass it. In the years that followed the defeat of the 2007 Senate immigration reform bill, we frequently heard staffers, pundits, and even some advocates argue that a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system simply couldn’t be done—people didn’t have the appetite or the attention span for something so complex and difficult. Not only did the passage of S. 744 disprove this notion, but the ongoing support for immigration reform suggests that the public welcomes a sophisticated solution to a complex problem.
- It is possible to have a civil debate over complex immigration issues. The Senate mark-up of S. 744, in particular, was a terrific exercise in democracy at work. Rather than finger pointing and name calling, Senators actually talked about issues of grave importance—due process, border needs, the right to counsel—made compromises, and reached agreements. Both Senators Grassley and Cornyn made a point of saying that they would not block consideration of the bill on the floor because they felt they had received a fair hearing in committee.
- Comprehensive bills are incubators for ideas. S. 744 contained new language and solutions to old problems. It required appointed counsel for kids, for the mentally disabled and other vulnerable groups. It increased immigrant integration funding. It redefined and expanded numerous employment visas to recognize the importance of entrepreneurs. It created a new hybrid visa that was based on the work of labor and business. All those new ideas are out there. Some have become smaller, targeted bills.
- Successful legislation captures a moment in time. Although only a year has passed, some of the ideas of S. 744 have already been eclipsed by current events or political changes. Some will not weather the test of time, replaced, one hopes by more robust protections for due process, family immigration, and more accountability and common sense along our borders. We can’t recapture the moment, but we can savor the good, and learn from the bad, and make sure that we move forward with measures that improve the immigration process without undermining basic rights.
So while the idea of legislative immigration reform is being both celebrated and mourned, we shouldn’t let it stop us from recognizing that reform is possible. As Senator Dick Durbin tweeted after S. 744’s passage, “Today, we have accomplished something great, made America a stronger nation & honored our heritage as a nation of immigrants.” – That will always remain something to celebrate.
Photo Courtesy of SEIU.