Obama vs. McCain – Immigration Reform

By Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Jeremiah Johnson

Despite the Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive reform last summer, the immigration debate remained at the top of our nation’s political discourse and is now a burning issue for the 2008 presidential election. Both Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic and Republican candidates, have indicated that immigration reform would be a priority of their administration. However, each candidate’s approach is slightly different and the outcome of the 2008 presidential elections will likely have a major affect on citizens and immigrants alike.

For starters, both the Republican and the Democratic candidates in the upcoming presidential election agree that America needs to secure its borders. To do so both Senator McCain and Senator Obama support additional funding, personnel, infrastructure and technology on the border and at our ports of entry. For Senator McCain, border security must be achieved first while Senator Obama takes a more holistic approach to timing. As the debate turns away from the concrete and fence posts at the border and focuses on real people, the candidates begin to distinguish themselves from each other.

On the Democratic side, Senator Obama supports sweeping changes within the immigration bureaucracy and an increase in the number of visa available for immigrants to keep families together and meet the demand for jobs that employers cannot fill. As for undocumented aliens already in the United States, Senator Obama supports a system that allows these immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, learn English, and eventually become citizens. Indeed, Senator Obama voted for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, and now supports a comprehensive and realistic approach to reforming America’s broken immigration system. From the Senate floor, Senator Obama indicated that “the time to fix our broken immigration system is now… We need stronger enforcement on the border and at the workplace… But for reform to work, we also must respond to what pulls people to America… Where we can reunite families, we should. Where we can bring in more foreign-born workers with the skills our economy needs, we should.”

On the Republican side, Senator John McCain from Arizona also supports comprehensive immigration reform; however he is clear that securing the border must come first. “It will be my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow,” stated Senator McCain on the campaign trail. “We have to secure our borders…but we also must proceed with a temporary worker program that is verifiable and truly temporary”. One big catch in Senator Mc Cain’s proposal is he wants the governors of all the Border States to certify to the secretary of Homeland Security that the borders are secure before any immigration reform. This may please his anti-immigration supporters while creating the elusion of being pro-immigration to the immigrant community. Once the borders are secure, Senator McCain proposes a four-prong approach to address immigration reform. First, Senator McCain stresses the need for the prosecution of employers that continue to hire illegal immigrants. Second, Senator McCain would implement a temporary worker program, reflecting the labor needs of the United States in both the high-tech and low skilled categories. Third, Senator McCain supports a program for undocumented aliens to legalize their status. This program would require undocumented immigrants to learn English, pay back taxes and fines, and pass a citizenship course as part of a path to legal status. Finally, Senator McCain is committed to clearing out the backlog of individuals that are waiting legally outside of the country, some for up to 20 years, for their green card number to become available.

While their approach may be different, both Senator Obama and Senator McCain appear to be on a very similar path towards immigration reform. In fact, Senator McCain along with Senator Obama were both co-sponsors of the DREAM Act of 2007, which would allow states to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition for college and confer legal resident status on some immigrant students.

With all this talk on the campaign trail, is now the time for comprehensive immigration reform? No, not right now. President Bush was unable to garner the support needed in Congress to pass a comprehensive bill last year and it is unlikely he will revive the effort before leaving office. However, over the past year, immigrant communities have seen an increase in immigration raids and the news media has continued to focus on immigration. Because both presidential candidates are talking about immigration, it is likely that immigration reform will be front and center in US politics for 2009.