The topic of immigration reform has been a political football that has polarized our electorate like few other issues. In the past, thoughtful, bipartisan reform efforts, like the 2007 Kennedy-Kyl bill, failed to gain enough votes to become law. The resounding reason given by opponents then was that it conveyed "amnesty" to those who had broken the law and that was not fair to those who had immigrated to the United States legally.
This year, immigration reform advocates have another opportunity to support a fair and just solution. This week, possibly today, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich have the chance to vote on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744), sponsored by the "Gang of Eight," a group of eight senators from both parties. This bill enhances border security, reforms the H1-B visa program and creates a path for undocumented residents to get green cards.
Rather than providing amnesty, it creates a fair, dignified and legal path for the many thousands of undocumented people who have lived in and contributed to our country to remain here and be recognized. I hope our senators will see this measure as a reasonable solution and support its passage.
The bill provides an opportunity for documentation by creating Registered Provisional immigrant Status (RPI), but the path is not an easy one, so I hope it will be considered fair by Americans across the ideological spectrum. To be eligible for RPI status one must pay a fee, pay taxes and clear a screen for criminal, national security, public health and morality concerns. A person with RPI status is not eligible for any federal means-tested benefit, health care or certain tax breaks and can only apply for a green card (Lawful Permanent Resident Status) after 10 years. For a green card, they must go through the same merit-based process currently in place.
For many undocumented residents, the path is daunting, but considering that our current system has no legal path that will result in citizenship, this is a huge step forward. It provides a fair opportunity to be documented through hard work and with dignity.
The bill also deals with some of the "nuts and bolts" issues that have plagued our immigration system for decades. Our southern border will be secured using more and better technology, and additional border patrol guards will he hired and trained. Employers will be required to confirm the status of their workers. By making illegal border crossings more difficult and eliminating the incentive (jobs) for potential immigrants we'll be able to reduce the number of crossing attempts and focus law enforcement on the flow of illegal drugs into this country.
The legislation also makes important strides toward a more proactive immigration policy by streamlining and expanding the H1-B visa program to invite more high-skill immigrants to the United States. The proposed revisions to the program will make it more attractive for the best candidates to come to work here and make it simpler for them to stay, contribute to our economy and increase our competitiveness.
Recently, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Anchorage hosted a community event attended by hundreds of concerned residents. They heard compelling personal stories of the disruption and strife our unfair immigration policies have wreaked on families right here in Anchorage. America is truly a nation of immigrants and we need to fix the shortcomings in our current system with fair and just policies that reflect our values as Americans.
The bipartisan legislation before the U.S. Senate represents a fair and just approach to immigration reform and I ask my fellow Alaskans to join me in supporting the bill and urging Murkowski and Begich to vote for it.
Arliss Sturgulewski is a former state senator and was twice a Republican candidate for governor. She lives in Anchorage.