Virginia, US
Citing how immigration reform would grow our economy and shrink our deficits, President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union Address last week stated simply: “Let’s get immigration reform done this year.” Two days later, House Republicans released a one-page document, “Standards for Immigration Reform,” outlining their own priorities in reforming our immigration system. After months of stalemate, there is fresh hope that some kind of immigration reform may actually happen. 
 
In his very brief remarks on immigration, the President referenced the bipartisan immigration reform bill (S. 744) that passed the Senate last June, but made no mention of the pathway to citizenship that bill would have created for the undocumented, nor did he make any reference to more recent efforts by Republican members of the House to move immigration reform forward. To date, five issue-specific immigration bills have cleared House committees. 
 
The Republicans’ Standards reflect a commitment to bipartisan progress, but stress that House Republicans “will not go to a conference with the Senate’s immigration bill.” Instead, they propose a step-by-step approach that starts with border security and increased enforcement, including implementation of a fully functioning electronic exit-entry control system and of electronic employment verification as priorities to combat status violations, fraud and other abuses of the law. The Standards support a means for undocumented individuals to legally live and work in the United States once certain conditions are met, but with no special path to citizenship. Moreover, the process for obtaining such legal status would not be available until “specific enforcement triggers have been implemented.” However, certain young people who were brought to the United States as children would be eligible for lawful permanent residence, and eventually citizenship, if they serve honorably in the military or obtain a college degree (similar to the DREAM Act provisions previously introduced and incorporated into S. 744). In addition, some influential Republicans have indicated that they would support a process to allow legalized foreign nationals the ability to apply for permanent residence and citizenship through the traditional avenues already available under existing law. 
 
Where the President’s remarks and the House Republicans’ Standards overlap is in their emphasis on the importance of employment-based immigration, especially of highly-skilled immigrants, to the continued growth of the U.S. economy. The Standards state that visa and green card allocations need to reflect the needs of employers and of the economy overall. They also endorse temporary worker programs that provide “realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States,” citing the agricultural industry as a particular concern. Thus the President’s emphasis on immigration as a driver of economic growth should resonate with both Republicans and Democrats. 
 
To date, legalization has been the major issue separating Democrats and Republicans, with Democrats—heeding the call of immigrant advocates—insisting on a path to citizenship for the undocumented while Republicans have consistently opposed it. The major exceptions to this were the bipartisan compromise that was brokered in the Senate in passing S. 744 last year which would enable the undocumented to obtain citizenship after clearing a multi-year, multi-step process, and support by some House Republicans for DREAM Act-type legislation. In response to the Republicans’ framework for immigration reform, President Obama has now indicated that he might be open to legislation that does not include a special path to citizenship for the undocumented. And while some immigrant advocates have also signaled that they might be amenable to legislation that legalizes the undocumented without providing an automatic path to citizenship, the more hard-line leadership within the immigrants’ rights community has always been strongly opposed to any bill that does not include a path to citizenship, which raises the question as to whether there will be a united position on the Democratic side of the aisle. 
 
With the President’s call to “get immigration reform done” this year, the increased Republican willingness to take it on, the Democrats moving away from their demand that reform be dealt with in one comprehensive bill and the possibility that at least some immigrant advocates may be willing to support a compromise on the legalization issue, we may see accelerated legislative activity after the 2014 election primary season is substantially complete later in the spring.