There can be advantages to going it alone. Despite two years of repeated attempts to get a bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate, Senators Menendez (D-NJ) and Leahy (D-VT) finally said “enough” and introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010 (CIR 2010) last week. Plenty of people have pointed out that the bill was introduced just as Congress left Washington to go into full-time campaign mode, leaving Sens. Menendez and Leahy virtually alone in Washington to promote their new bill. On a conference call Friday, however, Sen. Menendez said he aims at moving the bill during lame duck session or next Congress, but urged advocates and the media to focus on the merits of the bill, rather than the timing. (Other immigration bills passed during lame duck include the LIFE Act and NACARA.)

CIR 2010 doesn’t stray too much from the general framework we have seen since 2006 and builds on much of Sen. Menendez’s own work in the past two years. Analysts are digging away at the details of this massive bill (the official summary alone ran 73 pages) but the outline should be familiar to everyone by now.

The bill is broken into six parts—titles—addressing the major elements of reform: 1) Border security 2) Interior Enforcement 3) Employment Verification 4) Reforming Legal Immigration 5) Legalization of the Undocumented and 6) Integration and Citizenship. It adheres to many of the major principles outlined in the bipartisan REPAIR proposal released by Senators Schumer, Graham, Menendez and others earlier this spring. It incorporates many provisions of past and current legislative proposals that have had bipartisan support in the past—AgJobs, DREAM Act, Strong STANDARDS Act. It also includes provisions long advocated by Senator Grassley (R-IA) on routing out fraud in the immigration system.

CIR 2010 pushes the envelope, too, most notably by including the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA)—a bill which provides equal immigration protection and benefits for permanent partners of LGBTQ U.S. citizens. It includes the creation of a Standing Commission on Immigration which would have the authority to dig deep into the impact of immigration on our economy, national security, and labor markets. The bill also creates a new temporary worker program, but leaves the politically delicate question of how many new workers to the Commission to solve.

The Menendez-Leahy bill also offers an extremely generous legalization program, making anyone in the country as of September 30 eligible to apply. Like the Gutierrez-Ortiz bill in the House, it offers a more streamlined approach to legalization than the complicated and bureaucratic approaches that emerged from bipartisan bills in 2006 and 2007. In a nod to the continuing sluggishness of the economy, however, CIR 2010 abandons all pretense of requiring gainful employment during the Lawful Prospective Immigrant phase (the six to 11 year period before someone could qualify to get a green card). That’s not to say that people won’t work—but by eliminating that provision and focusing on the basics—paying taxes, learning English and civics, passing all criminal and background checks—CIR 2010 offers a clear-headed process for getting people registered and moving the country beyond the rhetoric of amnesty.

The generosity at the front end is tempered, however, by some extremely tough requirements regarding challenging denials of LPI status or the validity of the law itself. The bill, for instance, keeps the registration program open for only one year—a source of concern to service providers who know how difficult it is to ramp up a program and move ten million people through it. It continues the trend of denying access to the program if the applicant ever committed a crime subject to a sentence of one year or more (there are more generous waivers and exceptions than in the past, however). The ability to challenge denials in administrative and judicial settings is available, but strictly limited.

Similarly, the inclusion of triggers relating to operational control of the border—no matter how achievable—is disturbing. While the program to give people LPI status will be able to go forward unimpeded, the decision to link border security to legalization is a significant reminder that Sens. Menendez and Leahy aren’t exactly going it alone. The political baggage of our enforcement driven culture has become a seemingly unavoidable part of immigration reform.

People will find far more to critique and argue about before too long—that’s the nature of a massive bill like CIR 2010. But that’s also the beauty of it. Theories, proposals, and principles advance the debate only so far. An actual piece of legislation, real text that people can debate and analyze, gives advocates something to rally around and policy folks something to build on. In going it alone, Sens. Menendez and Leahy aren’t truly alone, of course. CIR 2010 is a snapshot of where the Senate is today—a calculation about what makes sense to the sponsors but also about what is most likely to bring more people to the bill. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge, knowing and believing that others will follow.

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