How Close Are We To Immigration Reform?

Following President Obama’s lopsided margin of victory among Hispanic voters in the presidential election Republicans were understandably concerned. After all, the results have many on Capitol Hill beaming with optimism that an immigration overhaul is indeed possible. However, the path to such reform may be far more complicated than you would think, especially since both parties are so far apart on the proper steps to amend the current system.

For the second time in three months, Republicans are pushing a bill that would create 55,000 additional green cards annually for foreign students who receive graduate degrees at U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering and math — so-called STEM graduates. Despite the noble bipartisan sentiment, too many of these highly sought students are forced to leave the country upon graduation, to the detriment of U.S. competitiveness.

Let’s also not forget that the GOP measure, which was approved by the House of Representatives on Friday, comes at a cost. The 55,000 visas would be derived by eliminating a similar number of green cards disbursed by the so-called diversity lottery, a 20-year-old program that awards visas mainly to low-skilled Africans and Eastern Europeans. In addition to serving as a brilliant public diplomacy medium for the United States, the lottery has offered a lifeline for the sorts of immigrants who have energized this nation for decades by their determination. Democrats, meanwhile, are willing to expand STEM visas, but many are rightly reluctant to sacrifice the lottery. Thus, it is highly unlikely the bill will see the light of day before the Senate.

The White House and congressional Democrats worry that approving measures such as the STEM bill would make it more difficult down the road to strike a deal on a comprehensive immigration package. However, by waiting for a perfect deal, they obstruct potentially good ones. What’s more, Republicans have sweetened the deal with a provision allowing the spouses and children of green-card holders, mainly from Mexico and the Caribbean, to enter the country more quickly while they await their own permanent-resident visas. That’s an improvement on the status quo, under which they must wait abroad to join their families, generally for two years or more.

Despite the hopes brought about by the 2012 election, the prospects remain murky at best for a comprehensive solution that satisfies everyone and resolves the central problem by offering a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. While leaders in Washington work that out, it makes no sense to put other reasonable proposals on hold. Democrats and Republicans should be able to reach a consensus and get it done.

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