Our broken immigration system fails to serve core national interests and must be reformed. The public demands it. Our security requires it. And economic reality compels it.
Yet some politicians continue to treat immigration policy as a cultural wedge issue to exploit. They peddle facile but vacuous hard-line enforcement rhetoric that appeals to nativists, stall reform and, in the process, alienate the fastest-growing segment of the electorate — Latinos.
There are still 12 million undocumented workers and families in the United States whose identities are unknown to the government, despite stepped up federal enforcement that included massive SWAT-team-style work-site raids and efforts by states and localities to pass counterproductive and unconstitutional laws. Border violence continues, families must wait years or decades to reunite, and honest employers and U.S. workers still operate on an uneven playing field. Additionally, extremists are amplifying poisonous rhetoric that has paralleled a surge in hate crimes against Latinos and created a corrosive climate of fear across the country.
Our leaders have three options: 1) preserve the status quo; 2) try to drive millions of workers and families out of our communities; or 3) enact tough but fair legislation establishing a 21st-century immigration system that serves the nation’s economic and security interests.
The status quo is obviously untenable. But the anti-reform caucus defies reason, propagating myths and advancing arguments plainly designed to block reform. Some in their ranks tag every serious proposal short of mass deportation as “amnesty.” Others try to cast their opposition as a simple matter of sequencing: first enforcement, then reform. But so-called “enforcement-first” strategies are precisely what we have now: tens of billions of dollars spent on items such as the dubious 670-mile Mexican border fence, with no lasting solution in sight. Make no mistake: “enforcement-first” is just tough-guy-speak for “preserve the status quo.”
Mass deportation and “deportation through attrition” are equally unrealistic. No serious lawmaker believes that we can deport 12 million people or that it is sound policy to make life so miserable for them, their employers and the U.S. family members that they would leave. A conservative estimate of the cost to deport 12 million people is well above $200 billion. That does not begin to quantify the devastating impact on revenues and gross domestic product, much less the national psyche.
The only viable approach is comprehensive immigration reform that marries smart border and work-site enforcement with policy reforms that embrace immigration and immigrants as a source of national vitality and economic prosperity. Successful reform must achieve four central goals:
Adopt smart enforcement policies. The federal government has a fundamental responsibility to protect the country and control our borders. That starts with knowing who is here and making it easier to target those who mean us harm. We have already dedicated billions to border security infrastructure and exponentially expanded border security personnel. Now we need to disconnect the jobs magnet by stiffening work-site enforcement and creating legal channels for workers to enter. This will diminish chaos at the border and allow the Department of Homeland Security to focus on stopping criminals.
Resolve the status of the undocumented population. Effective reform must require those living in the United States illegally to register, pay their full share of taxes, learn English, complete stringent background checks and earn the privilege of citizenship. Requiring them to come forward will enhance our security by establishing who is here and enabling enforcement agencies to focus on serious criminals and security threats. It will restore the rule of law, expand our tax base, diminish work-force exploitation and level the playing field for all workers and employers.
Enhance legal immigration channels and labor mobility. The demands of global competitiveness and a highly interconnected world require expanded channels for legal immigration into this country. Immigrants serve important roles in the success of the nation’s economy in boardrooms and cornfields, in Silicon Valley and the San Fernando Valley. Demographic trends show that an aging United States will need more workers across all occupation levels. The United States must embrace the inevitable shift toward a well-regulated, legal, global labor market in order to retain our economic leadership. But employment-based immigration levels must not be pitted against family-based immigration in a zero-sum game. We should adjust target levels for both family- and employment-based immigration to acknowledge that immigration is an engine of economic dynamism and a key to strong families.
Protect U.S. workers. Protecting native U.S. workers must be a central goal of immigration reform. Undocumented immigration has become the default mechanism in the absence of realistic legal channels for low-skilled foreign workers. And an exploitable undocumented work force can unfairly distort the labor market to the detriment of native U.S. workers. A program that brings undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, establishes effective labor protections and creates controlled legal channels for future immigrant workers will improve our security, enhance accountability for all employers and provide a level playing field for all workers.
The political challenges remain daunting, but the national interest in comprehensive reform is unyielding. Realistic solutions are at hand, and it is time for our elected representatives to quit posturing and enact legislation that adopts smart enforcement, requires the undocumented population to get right with the law, updates rules for legal immigration and protects all workers.
• Marshall Fitz is director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. He previously served as the director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, where he led the education and advocacy efforts on all immigration policy issues for the 11,000-member professional bar association. He has been a leader in national and grass-roots coalitions that have organized to advance progressive immigration policies.
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