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Neely Young: Immigration Reform A Must

Immigration reform is on the table in the U.S. Congress. Now that Republicans have control of Congress, they may actually try to fix the repressive rules that have for years plagued the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S.

In past congressional races, we have elected people to Congress who have more interest in partisan bickering and derailing the legislative process. In the recent election, voters elected those who have promised they would be more interested in governing and solving our nation’s problems.

It’s a clear mandate, and polls suggest voters want their elected officials to compromise and show results. In a recent poll, 79 percent of Republican primary voters said they believe that fixing the current immigration system is “very important.”

According to major news reports in The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets, Republicans in the House and Senate are moving in a positive way on many areas of immigration reform. The Senate sent an immigration bill to the House last year, and the House is going to use its new majority to work with the Senate.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) is proposing a bill that would address border security, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) will be advancing measures that would provide fencing, high-tech surveillance and a better visa tracking system. Republicans say action on this issue will open up other legislation on other aspects of the immigration system.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) has discussed two bills that are in the works. The first would create a temporary worker program that would allow up to 350,000 people to enter the U.S. for temporary jobs in agriculture, construction, restaurants and other low-skill jobs. The second would repeal a little-known rule called the “three- and 10-year bar” that prevents undocumented immigrants from applying for legal status through normal channels like an employment visa or marriage to an American citizen.

When critics ask why people in this situation don’t just get in line like everyone else, the answer is they can’t because this rule requires anyone in the country for more than a year to return to their home country for 10 years before being eligible for legal status here. Plus, applications for citizenship can take more than 20 years to clear due to the current backlog. This bill is designed to help reform the process.

Republican leadership in the House recently released their “Principles on Immigration,” opening a crack in the door by saying, “These [undocumented] persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics and be able to support themselves and their families.” The document says “criminal aliens, gang members and sex offenders” would not be eligible.

A 2013 bipartisan Senate plan establishes a lengthy 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented residents by establishing a provisional status for a 10-year period where they are Lawful Permanent Residents. In three years, they may apply to become naturalized citizens.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) helped introduce the Immigration Innovation Act of 2015, which would make more visas available for high-tech workers, a proposal business and industry have pushed for several years. Georgia Tech, MIT and many other colleges are awarding engineering degrees to people from India, China and Europe. Yet we are sending them back to their home countries when we need them to fill jobs in the U.S.

Both the Senate and the House are adding plans to better regulate employers who hire undocumented residents. The Senate bill would replace a patchwork of state and local laws, many that are similar to those in Georgia. It would enforce a strict but fair federal system for qualifying undocumented immigrants to gain provisional work status.

At the writing of this column, all of the above issues have yet to be introduced. But they will be in debate, with the granting of a legal path to citizenship being the most difficult. And whatever solution Congress comes up with, it might still be vetoed by President Obama.

There is no doubt that reforming our nation’s broken immigration system will require leadership, bipartisan agreement and, most of all, courage. We in the business community should support the above proposals. And good luck to all.

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