Amid all the talk of the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling, White House and congressional staffers are working behind the scenes on negotiating some consensus on another major issue: immigration reform. If they can deliver a Christmas present in the form of avoiding the fiscal cliff, then passing immigration reform should be their New Year's resolution.
Resolutions are based on a desire to improve one's life in some way. Often, they originate from a need that has gone unmet for some time. Take weight loss--the perennial favorite. If you've wanted to lose weight for a while, but were recently told by your doctor that you were morbidly obese, chances are your survival instinct would kick in and you'd have renewed motivation to address the problem. If you've put it off for a decade, it's going to be tougher because you've probably gained more weight in the meantime. Yet the goal is no less important; in fact, you could argue that its importance has increased. It is the same with reforming our immigration system.
Following President Obama's reelection, helped in no small part by the growing Latino electorate, Republicans' survival instinct has kicked in and it has renewed their motivation to address the problem of a dysfunctional immigration system. Immigration reform has been put off for a decade, at least, and achieving consensus on such a complicated and politicized issue looks tougher in today's political climate than it did in 2001, for example, when Mexican President Vicente Fox and President George W. Bush were in talks to tackle "the whole enchilada." And yet, in the last month, the door is suddenly open for achieving meaningful, bipartisan reform following Mitt Romney's loss and his failure to draw Latino voters, attributed by many to his tough immigration rhetoric during the campaign.
Achieving a New Year's resolution takes hard work and sacrifice, and immigration reform is no different. Both parties will need to sacrifice.
Republicans must commit to a legalization program. Their recent passage of the STEM Jobs Act in the House was portrayed as a sign that the GOP was willing to work on immigration reform. Yet the bill was in the works before the election, and it does little or nothing to appeal to Latinos. Not surprisingly, Senate Democrats blocked the bill.
If Republicans want to show that they really mean business, they should be willing to tackle the tough stuff first. If they come up with a legalization plan that Democrats can agree to, it would go a long way toward smoothing the road for full reform, including a robust enforcement system and a realignment of future visas to better meet our needs for both high- and low-skilled workers.
For their part, Democrats must be willing to consider scrapping the diversity visa, a lottery-based system of green cards given to 55,000 foreigners annually from countries of "low immigration." (Note that only 18 countries are not considered "low immigration.") This program, created in 1990 and benefiting mostly Europeans and Africans, has outlived its purpose. Africans are now the fastest-growing immigrant group, and they and others now have significant numbers here who are eligible to sponsor relatives. In recent years, both the House and the Senate have voted to eliminate the program.
Another potential sacrifice for Democrats is the visa category for siblings of naturalized citizens. As Congress debates what the "future flow" of immigrants to the U.S. should be, there are strong economic arguments for shifting away from family-based immigration to employment-based visas. Currently, two-thirds of green cards issued annually are family-based, far higher than in countries like Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom. Employment-based visas make up 14 percent of U.S. admissions each year, compared with half of visas issued by the U.K. and two-thirds by Canada. The easiest family category to eliminate would be the adult brothers and sisters (and their families) of U.S. citizens, who account for about 6 percent of all green cards.
So while we wait in tense anticipation to see if Santa will deliver a deal on the fiscal cliff or a lump of coal, let's hope Congress can get serious about its New Year's resolution to tackle immigration reform. Our survival — politically, economically, and morally — depends on it. Like all meaningful resolutions, this one requires hard work and sacrifice.
Jill H. Wilson is a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.