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Immigration plan should go further

By Angela M. Kelley, Special to CNN
April 17, 2013 -- Updated 1339 GMT (2139 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Angela Kelley: New immigration bill is a rare bipartisan feat: a compromise
  • It's not perfect but will draw 11.1 undocumented from shadows on road to citizenship, she says
  • She says it can be improved by offering shorter path to citizenship, putting families first
  • Legalization and citizenship should not be linked to border security, Kelley says

Editor's note: Angela M. Kelley is vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive research and policy institute.

(CNN) -- Working diligently for over four months, a bipartisan group of senators -- the so-called Gang of Eight -- has accomplished a remarkable feat: They have produced an immigration bill that is pragmatic, creative and forward looking. The bill, introduced early Wednesday, is -- like any big piece of legislation -- a compromise.

Stakeholders will find parts they love and parts they loathe.

First, the parts to love: The senators have largely navigated a dizzyingly complex arena -- U.S. immigration policy -- in ways that while not perfect, would substantially improve the dysfunctional status quo.

Among other things, the bill would bring the nation's 11.1 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and put them on a road to citizenship. It would increase and streamline border security, mandate a national employment verification system and eliminate the visa backlogs that have caused decades-long family separations. And it would promote economic competitiveness by revamping employment-based immigration so that business can bring in needed workers while still protecting the wages and jobs of American workers.

It is a remarkable starting point but with several crucial missed opportunities.

To be more effective, here is what it should include:

A shorter path to citizenship to supercharge economic growth. The Gang of Eight's plan provides a pathway to legal status that lets immigrants apply for a green card after 10 years. They must then wait another three years before they can apply for citizenship. From a pure economic standpoint, a faster path would generate larger economic benefits. In fact, according to an analysis prepared by Robert Lynch and Patrick Oakford for the Center for American Progress, granting legal status immediately, and citizenship in five years, would bring gains of $1.1 trillion to the U.S. economy cumulatively over 10 years, would raise $144 billion in new tax revenue over that same period and would create on average 159,000 new jobs each year.

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Why? First, with legal status undocumented immigrants have legal protections that the rest of us take for granted. They can fight for higher wages and better working conditions and not fear being fired. With citizenship, workers leave all fears of deportation behind and can deepen their connection to their work and lives in the United States.

Second, immigrants with legal status invest in their English-language skills and in other forms of education and training that raise their productivity. These investments in turn lead to higher wages and permit them to access a broader range of higher-paying jobs. The quicker they become citizens, the sooner they can apply for jobs requiring U.S. citizenship. In addition, workers with legal status are free to be mobile and seek jobs that best suit their skill and education levels, thereby improving efficiency in the labor market.

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Again, citizenship broadens the pool of available jobs and opportunities for these workers. Finally, legal status and citizenship facilitate entrepreneurship by providing access to licenses, permits, insurance and credit to start businesses and create jobs. A quicker path to citizenship hastens the opportunity as investors and banks recognize the roots the entrepreneur is putting into his or her business.

By contrast, keeping unauthorized immigrants on a 10-year-plus path to citizenship would bring slighter gains in economic growth, tax revenue and job creation. Skeptics of the political viability of a shorter path should note that a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 51% of Americans believed that legalized immigrants should be able to gain citizenship after five years (and 18% believe citizenship should be immediate).

Families must be put first. The proposal makes a number of positive changes to the family immigration system, including eliminating the visa wait times for the spouses and minor children of U.S legal residents ("green card" holders), thereby quickly reuniting those families. However, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families are omitted from the bill's family provisions. This is nonsense. While straight married couples can petition for their spouses to come from abroad, the federal Defense of Marriage Act prohibits same-sex couples -- even those legally married -- from the same rights.

Also problematic: The bill alters and in some cases eliminates family categories used by U.S. citizens to reunite with loved ones. For example, U.S citizens with brothers or sisters born abroad will no longer be permitted to apply to reunite with their siblings. Finally, the 11 million undocumented who have left a spouse or child behind in their native country face a 10-year wait before they may petition to reunite with their spouses and minor children.

Family unity provides strength and stability to newcomers and native-born alike and should be at the heart of our nation's immigration policies.

Border security and legalization should proceed on separate tracks. The Senate plan would make smart investments in border security, granting the Department of Homeland Security the resources to ensure that it apprehends or deters at least 90% of attempted entries.

A secure border is a national priority and a constantly evolving challenge that must be met head-on. But the program for the 11 million and the provisions for border security must operate on separate but parallel tracks. Both legalization and border security are too important to politicize. Making legalization and citizenship contingent on border security only hurts our nation, which will lose out on the economic benefits of the newly legalized.

As Congress debates immigration reform in the coming weeks, it should consider these and other issues. The new immigration bill contains far more that will unite our nation than divide it. It will put our immigration system -- and ultimately the nation -- on a new and stronger path to economic prosperity, family unity and national security. We look forward to the debate.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Angela M. Kelley.

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