My view: Immigration reform needs to happen step-by-step, not all at once

by Sen. Mike Lee

Published: Sunday, April 28 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Activists rally for immigration reform outside the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to push her to back comprehensive immigration reform Wednesday, April 10, 2013 in Los Angeles.

Damian Dovarganes, AP

Enlarge photo»

If the goal of Monday's immigration hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee was to create the appearance of motion and evoke emotion then it was a success. I am not interested simply in motion, however. I want forward movement on comprehensive immigration reform.

I am in favor of compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform. And it's because I am committed to serious and substantial reform that I cannot support the 844-page bill proposed by the so-called "Gang of Eight."

Much like the current bill, the comprehensive immigration reform I envision includes: real border security, visa modernization, employment verification, robust guest worker programs for both high- and low-skilled workers, and a compassionate approach to dealing with those currently in the country illegally. But history teaches that each of these vital components must be addressed incrementally and sequentially in order to ensure meaningful results.

Americans have to look no further than recent headlines to see what happens when Congress bungles a complicated issue by attempting to fix everything all at once. Sen. Max Baucus, one of the principal authors of Obamacare, recently described the impending implementation of his creation as a "huge train wreck coming down."

"I'm concerned that lack of clear information is leading to misconceptions and misinformation," said Baucus, who helped write the 2,600-page health care reform law, "and people generally dislike what they don't understand."

Even though Obamacare had been debated for months, very few members of Congress or the public understood what was in the bill when the president signed it. Three years later, Americans still have no idea how to comply with the law, how it will affect their access to health care, and whether it will be affordable. Today this uncertainty is felt by our economy in lost jobs, stagnant investment and depressed wages.

Now, some in Congress are proposing to solve another major problem in our country with a similarly massive reform; only this time they are promising to curtail the amount of time we have to read and understand what is in the bill before voting. Indeed, the first hearing to discuss the lengthy, complicated and sweeping immigration legislation was held just two days after the bill was introduced.

Many of the expert witnesses there to help us understand the bill had to admit that even they hadn't yet read it all.

Trying to fix all the problems at once is the surest way to avoid fixing any of them well. Few legislators — and perhaps fewer citizens — actually understand everything in such bills. And no one can even pretend to comprehend all the moving pieces and how they will actually work in practice. Such wide-ranging legislation inevitably produces a host of unforeseen effects and unintended consequences.

I believe we can achieve comprehensive reform without having to pass it in a single, comprehensive bill. In fact, I think the only way to guarantee successful reform of the entire system is through a series of incremental reforms that ensure the foundational pieces — like border security and an effective entry/exit system — are done properly.

There are two primary benefits to this step-by-step approach. First, it allows Congress to move quickly on measures where Republicans and Democrats agree. We ought not hold common sense and essential measures hostage to unavoidably contentious ones.

Both sides largely agree on essential elements like border security, employment verification, visa reform, guest-worker programs and high-skilled immigration to meet America's economic needs. These measures are relatively uncontroversial and could pass incrementally, with broad bipartisan support in Congress. Indeed, the only reason immigration reform is controversial is that Congress refuses to adopt this incremental approach.

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