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Humanity? Practicality? Amnesty? The arguments for and against immigration reform

Backers and opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are still holding their breath to see the exact details of bipartisan legislation from House and Senate working groups, but the wait has made one thing clear: Everyone with a dog in the fight is more than ready to make their case once the bill makes its public debut.

Comprehensive immigration reform is complicated, with myriad issues to be untangled by lawmakers and their legislative policy staffers, who have been working behind closed doors for weeks. Numerous self-imposed deadlines for the group have slipped as they hash out thorny details, but lawmakers now say that they expect to roll out a bill by early next week.

Some questions the legislation will have to answer are obvious: What do we do with 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country, and what penalties should they have to pay for breaking the law? How can we ensure that new immigrants bolster the economy without increasing unemployment for American workers? What does a “secure border” really mean?

Other issues may sound minor, but could mean the world to an individual who dreams of becoming a legal U.S. resident. Should we allow the brothers and sisters of current U.S. citizens to apply for green cards based on their family relationships? Should an undocumented seasonal agricultural worker be able to work his or her way to faster citizenship by spending a certain amount of time performing a high-demand job?

Each of these questions brings with it an army of lobbyists and Capitol Hill wonks. To understand the legislation that may eventually pass, you don’t necessarily need to understand each one, but here’s an overview of the arguments each side is dealing with for and against a comprehensive immigration reform bill:

The economic argument: Disputes about the potential economic impact of an immigration bill were one of the main reasons that similar negotiations fell apart in 2007. But this time, the Chamber of Commerce and labor unions have struck a deal on temporary workers, and business groups are eagerly lobbying for measures that would allow more highly skilled foreign workers to seek employment in the United States. While there’s no consensus about how the legalization of undocumented immigrants will affect the overall economy, one recent study from a Republican group estimated that reform could raise economic growth by a percentage point, raise GDP by $1,500 per person and reduce the deficit by $2.5 trillion.

Larry Downing / REUTERS

Latinos rally in favor of comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, 2013.

The faith argument: Conservative and liberal religious organizations are joining pro-reform groups by getting in the game on the issue of family visas, saying that it’s unfair to make it difficult for family members of legal residents to join their families in America. Many faith groups, including the Evangelical Immigration Table, cite the Bible’s Matthew 25:35, which reads: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Inhumane treatment of immigrants, these groups say, amounts to mistreatment of “a stranger” as embodied by Christ.

The social justice argument: Pro-reform groups argue that humane and fair treatment of those in the country illegally is simply the right thing to do, saying that undocumented workers are often subject to exploitation and stifling fear of deportation. Like pro-reform faith groups, they also argue that family unification is important and shouldn’t be sacrificed in favor of more employment-based visas. Unions, LGBT organizations and groups like the NAACP are on board with the reform effort, saying they identify legalization for the undocumented as part of the larger fight for universal civil rights.

The political argument: With a few exceptions, the brain trusts of both parties see it in their interest to create some kind of path to citizenship. Latino and Asian immigrants -- both growing demographic groups in the United States -- make up a substantial chunk of the Democratic coalition, and Republicans note that their last presidential candidate won only 27 percent of the Latino vote. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out Thursday showed that 55 percent of Latino adults strongly favor a path to citizenship.

The economic argument: Fiscal hawks worry that the immediate impact of having more legalized residents could drain the nation’s resources. Conservatives on the Senate budget panel argue that the newly legal individuals will use up costly federal benefits; others say that even with wage protections negotiated by unions, temporary immigrant labor will lower wages for American workers and will keep those currently unemployed or underemployed unable to succeed in the job market. The Heritage Foundation, a premiere conservative think tank in Washington, is expected to release a lengthy report in the coming weeks about the impact of comprehensive immigration reform that will likely support those claims.

Rep. Xavier Becerra explains where the talks on immigration reform stand and which flash points are currently blocking a deal.

The Rule of Law argument: Many Republican opponents center on the Rule of Law argument, which holds that those who have entered the country illegally have broken the law and should not be rewarded for their actions with a path to citizenship. Proponents of that argument believe these individuals should return to their home country and apply for a visa through existing channels. They also argue that a path to legalization will incentivize more illegal immigration to the country. Some point to a 1986 bill, backed by President Ronald Reagan, which offered amnesty for immigrants who entered the country before 1982. Despite promises of tough enforcement measures, that bill is now viewed as a failure that prompted a wave of fraud and a surge of illegal immigration.

The political argument: Some conservatively aligned groups grumble that even if immigration reform passes, the majority of the votes against it will still be from Republicans, making Latino voters no more likely to embrace conservative candidates. They argue that new immigrants are naturally ideologically aligned with liberals; more legalization, these political thinkers say, just means more votes for Democrats in future elections.  

The process argument: While lawmakers who are likely to ultimately oppose the bill usually cite the above arguments, they often do so within the framework of the legislative process. Some Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama, have needled Democratic Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont for failing to schedule sufficient hearings on the matter. (Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did the same, leading Leahy to lengthen the process during which the panel will consider the bill, but Sessions says the current plan is still not thorough enough.) Opponents of reform, often citing Obama’s lengthy health-care bill, say that insufficient review of the legislation could be disastrous and that “months” of consideration will be needed. They will also fight for amendments to the bill, which Leahy has assured will be allowed but may face nearly united opposition from the bill’s proponents.


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