Obama and Gang of 8 Proposals for US Immigration Reform Leave Questions Unanswered

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on immigration at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 29, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on immigration at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 29, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


On Tuesday, January 29, 2013, President Barack Obama outlined his top priorities for fixing a “broken immigration system” through comprehensive immigration reform.  Obama’s plan is based on four principles: continue to strengthen US borders; crack down on companies that hire undocumented workers; hold undocumented immigrants accountable before they can earn their citizenship; and streamline the legal immigration system for families, workers, and employers

The President’s address followed an announcement the previous day by leading US senators of a bipartisan plan to overhaul the nation’s current immigration laws.  The bipartisan group, known as the “Gang of 8,” include: Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Michael Bennett of Colorado; and Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Among the four pillars outlined in the bipartisan framework is the call for the creation of a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.  However, it is uncertain how the plan will treat the millions of unauthorized immigrants whose visa petitions have been approved and are ready in line for visas.  The framework states:

Once the enforcement measures have been completed, individuals with probationary legal status will be required to go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants, pass an additional background check, pay taxes, learn English and civics, demonstrate a history of work in the United States, and current employment, among other requirements, in order to earn the opportunity to apply for lawful permanent residency.  Those individuals who successfully complete these requirements can eventually earn a green card.

Individuals who are present without lawful status … will only receive a green card after every individual who is already waiting in line for a green card, at the time this legislation is enacted, has received their green card.  Our purpose is to ensure that no one who has violated America’s immigration laws will receive preferential treatment as they relate to those individuals who have complied with the law. 

Despite the Group of 8’s stated goals to provide opportunities for legal status, the framework does not appear to account for the 4.9 million persons (as estimated by the Department of State in 2009) – most of whom are living without status in the United States and who of have been found eligible for a visa based on a family relationship to a US citizen or lawful permanent resident.  Depending on how this principle is implemented in proposed legislation, many unauthorized immigrants could be required to “go to the back of the line,” despite the years, sometimes decades, that they have already spent in line due to caps on the annual number of visas granted by nationality and by category of family relationship.  In any event, those without approved visa petitions would have to wait “years, sometimes decades” for the current visa backlog to clear before they can obtain permanent legal status.

In addition, under the Group of 8’s proposal, unauthorized immigrants would not be able to “earn a green card” until the United States demonstrates its “commitment to securing [its] borders and combating visa overstays.”   Yet a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has concluded that by virtually every financial and operational metric, the United States has never more aggressively enforced its immigration laws.   The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) will continue to monitor immigration reform proposals and developments in the weeks ahead.