Analysis: Obama pushes for comprehensive immigration reform

Acknowledging that America’s immigration system is “out of date and badly broken”, President Barack Obama yesterday presented his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, focusing on how to handle the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are living in the U.S.

“I’m here because most Americans agree that it’s time to fix a system that’s been broken for way too long,” said Obama during his speech in Las Vegas, Nevada – a city with a large hospitality industry that employs a high number of immigrant workers. “We have an immigration system…that’s holding us back instead of helping us grow our economy and strengthen our middle class.”

Read more: Senate ‘Gang of Eight’ presents comprehensive immigration reform to deal with 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Similar to the bipartisan immigration reform framework announced by a group of eight Senators on Monday, Obama’s plan would create a pathway to “earned citizenship” for the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the shadows.

“Right now, we have 11 million undocumented immigrants in America; 11 million men and women from all over the world who live their lives in the shadows. Yes, they broke the rules. They crossed the border illegally. Maybe they overstayed their visas. Those are facts. Nobody disputes them,” said Obama. “But these 11 million men and women are now here. Many of them have been here for years. And the overwhelming majority of these individuals aren’t looking for any trouble. They’re contributing members of the community. They’re looking out for their families. They’re looking out for their neighbors. They’re woven into the fabric of our lives.”

Read more: Transcript: President Barack Obama’s speech on comprehensive immigration reform

Obama’s plan would require undocumented immigrants to register with the government, pass a national criminal background check, and pay fines and other fees before they are granted probationary legal status to continue living and working in the United States. Like the Gang of Eight’s framework, the President’s plan made clear that immigrants given probationary legal status will not be eligible to receive welfare, federal benefits, or the subsidies provided for health coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

Obama argued that granting probationary legal status to the undocumented immigrants (and thereby bringing them out of the shadows) would help strengthen and grow the American economy.

“Like the rest of us, they go out and try to earn a living. Often they do that in a shadow economy — a place where employers may offer them less than the minimum wage or make them work overtime without extra pay. And when that happens, it’s not just bad for them, it’s bad for the entire economy,” Obama explained. “Because all the businesses that are trying to do the right thing — that are hiring people legally, paying a decent wage, following the rules — they’re the ones who suffer. They’ve got to compete against companies that are breaking the rules. And the wages and working conditions of American workers are threatened, too.”

Once the undocumented immigrants received their legal status, they are eligible to apply for permanent resident status or a green card. However, the requirements for receiving a green card are strict: the applicants would have to pay taxes as well as additional penalty fees, pass additional criminal and national security background checks, and learn English and U.S. civics. Not only that, they would have to wait until the current backlog of green card applicants from legal immigrants have been cleared before they can apply. In other words, they have to get in the back of the line.

However, the Senators’ proposal on permanent residency is stricter than the President’s. On top of the aforementioned conditions, the Gang of Eight’s framework would require the federal government to meet certain border security metrics (which are to be determined) as well as effectively combatting visa overstays before even allowing the undocumented immigrants to go back to the line and apply for a green card.

But in both the Senators’ and President’s proposal, so-called “DREAMers” – or undocumented immigrants who were brought illegally into the United States as children – will be given expedited pathways for earning their citizenships. The President’s plan would allow the “DREAMers” to apply for citizenship if they serve honorably in the military or attend college for at least two years.

Under the President’s plan, once the undocumented immigrants receive their green card, they will be able to apply for U.S. citizenship after a 5-year period.

“It won’t be a quick process but it will be a fair process. And it will lift these individuals out of the shadows and give them a chance to earn their way to a green card and eventually to citizenship,” said Obama.

Another key component of the President’s proposal is to strengthen border security, particularly the U.S.-Mexico border, and to step up enforcement against people who overstay their visas.

Whereas the Senators’ framework emphasized investments in technology and surveillance resources for Border Patrol, Obama’s plan also called for cracking down on criminal networks involved in human smuggling, identity thefts, and passport and visa frauds; more funding for the nation’s immigration courts to improve efficiency; and focusing on deporting criminals and those who pose threat to national security.

Obama also made clear that his administration will hold employers accountable for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. It’s widely known that some businesses hire illegal immigrants so they can pay those workers much less and not have to comply with workplace safety regulations, thereby giving them an unfair competitive advantage over businesses that hire legal immigrants and comply with the law.

To help businesses verify the legal status of job applicants, the President is proposing improvements to the federal employment verification database and measures to prevent identity theft and fraud.

“To be fair, most businesses want to do the right thing, but a lot of them have a hard time figuring out who’s here legally, who’s not. So we need to implement a national system that allows businesses to quickly and accurately verify someone’s employment status. And if they still knowingly hire undocumented workers, then we need to ramp up the penalties,” said Obama.

The final piece of Obama’s proposal is to reform the legal immigration system to reduce the visa backlogs, particularly for families and employer-sponsored requests.

Under Obama’s plan, the existing yearly country cap rates for family-sponsored visas will be doubled from 7% to 15%. The country cap rates for employer-sponsored visas will be eliminated.

Recognizing the important contributions by immigrants to the U.S. economy, Obama also proposes to provide automatic green cards to foreign students who have received a Master’s or Ph.D. degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from a U.S. university.

“Right now, there are brilliant students from all over the world sitting in classrooms at our top universities. They’re earning degrees in the fields of the future, like engineering and computer science. But once they finish school, once they earn that diploma, there’s a good chance they’ll have to leave our country,” said Obama. “If you’re a foreign student who wants to pursue a career in science or technology, or a foreign entrepreneur who wants to start a business with the backing of American investors, we should help you do that here. Because if you succeed, you’ll create American businesses and American jobs. You’ll help us grow our economy.”

The President noted that 1 in 4 high-tech start-up companies in the United States are founded by immigrants. Some of the start-ups grow to become big companies – such as Google, Yahoo, Intel, and Instagram – that hire thousands of American workers.

Obama also proposed creating an new visa category for entrepreneurs who want to start or grow their businesses in the U.S.

“That’s what comprehensive immigration reform looks like: smarter enforcement; a pathway to earned citizenship; improvements in the legal immigration system so that we continue to be a magnet for the best and the brightest all around the world,” said Obama.

Obama said if Congress does not develop and move forward with its own comprehensive immigration reform, he will submit a bill based on the proposals he outlined and “insist that they vote on it right away.”

“We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate. We’ve been debating this a very long time,” said Obama. “Of course, there will be rigorous debate about many of the details, and every stakeholder should engage in real give and take in the process. But it’s important for us to recognize that the foundation for bipartisan action is already in place.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the architects of this week’s bipartisan immigration reform framework, expressed cautious optimism that both sides will find common ground on this issue.

“I appreciate the President’s support for our bipartisan effort on comprehensive immigration reform,” McCain said in a written statement. “While there are some differences in our approaches to this issue, we share the belief that any reform must recognize America as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. We should all agree that border security and enforcement is particularly important in order to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the 1986 immigration reform.”

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