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Follow the gun-violence bill road map to immigration reform

You could have a spirited argument over which public policy debate in the United States has been plagued the most by gridlock and partisanship, but guns and immigration would surely be two top examples. The recent passage of bipartisan gun-control legislation, which was the first significant policy movement since the early 1990s, should be a road map to follow for passing targeted immigration reform — which has similarly evaded significant bipartisan momentum for decades.  

We have worked for presidents of both parties on immigration and border security issues and do not agree on all proposed immigration solutions. But we see a unique opportunity to use the gun violence legislative template and momentum to implement major, urgent, and bipartisan reforms in the immigration arena.

The road map the gun legislation provided is fairly straightforward. After recent gun massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde, federal lawmakers took the courageous step of pausing more ambitious goals on the right and left and developing a package of reforms that will make a real difference in certain aspects of our violence epidemic. The left set aside, for now, heartfelt positions around assault weapons and banning gun sales for people under age 21. The right shelved proposals to expand concealed carry laws and tougher criminal sentencing.

Instead, a group led by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, came together to enact the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Republicans made concessions for purchases made by those under 21 — giving authorities up to 10 business days to access mental health and juvenile records of those individuals and funding these enhanced checks — as well as cracking down on gun trafficking and straw purchasing, and closing the “boyfriend” abuser loophole. Furthermore, the bill funded state intervention programs and red-flag programs, as well as federal mental health and school safety programs.

What would a package of bipartisan immigration proposals that could realistically pass Congress in a similar fashion look like? Let’s look at four ideas that are each overwhelmingly popular and doable.

First, the future of the so-called “Dreamers” and “Documented Dreamers,” two groups of individuals brought to the U.S. as children who know no other home. The stopgap DACA program that currently protects around 600,000 young adults is in legal jeopardy, and perhaps 200,000 additional young adults will soon have no status as their parents’ green card applications are stuck in bureaucratic limbo. Only the extreme far right actually wants to deport productive members of society, and passing legislation to clarify their legal status mostly has been a chit in broader negotiations. Congress should authorize permanent legal status for both categories.

Second, our asylum case management system is overwhelmed, and both frivolous and meritorious cases can take years to review and resolve. No matter what you think of the standards for awarding asylum, which is a controversial issue, funding the system and increasing the number of case officers and immigration judges needed to process these applications should be a no-brainer. The immigration court backlog is at an all-time high, with 1.82 million pending cases as of June 2022. A massive influx of funding to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and to the Department of Justice is required, somewhat akin to the “red flag” funding in the gun-violence bill.

Third, a significant percentage of our undocumented population arrived legally at our ports of entry but failed to depart on time. The share of arrivals deemed to be overstays actually increased last year, likely due to COVID-19-related travel problems. The good news is that our entry-exit system powered by no-touch biometrics is nearly in full implementation at our air and sea ports. Facial recognition technology is now able to detect impostors arriving at our ports of entry and is used to confirm departures of foreign visitors to establish an accurate tracking system of the small percentage of visa overstays. Finishing the rollout of this program 20 years in the making, and redoubling efforts to identify and remove individuals who are short-term overstays before they build roots in the U.S., is a bipartisan and doable goal in the next two years with some modest funding and attention.

Lastly, attracting and retaining highly-educated, foreign-born STEM engineers and technologists is an urgent national security issue. The House has passed several major reforms designed to allow Ph.D.s — many of whom are educated at U.S. universities — to work at U.S. companies and institutions, rather than force them back to opportunities in China, India and other countries. Unfortunately, this proposal was included in neither the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) nor the semiconductor investment bill, but it should be part of any bipartisan piecemeal bill.

Dozens of other important immigration proposals have support across the political spectrum, addressing border solutions, farm and other essential workers, interior enforcement and refugee assistance, but none of these currently has the overwhelming bipartisan support needed to merit inclusion in a package akin the gun-violence bill.

Congress has shown it can put its differences aside and focus on doable policy solutions, advancing vital legislation that has been stuck at a stalemate for years. Now that we have seen it done with gun violence, there is no excuse not to use the same legislative strategy to begin tackling immigration reform.

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