The failure of successive administrations to secure the U.S. border and operate a functional immigration system in the 1990s and early 2000s made it impossible to build any consensus on needed immigration reform.
The expansion of the U.S. Border Patrol, changes to policies and better technology and equipment since 2005 have reduced the number of people entering America illegally. Even so, 50,000 people have been murdered on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border over the past four years, and those attempting to cross illegally tend to be heavily armed human traffickers and drug smugglers.
The United States must have operational control of our borders and an immigration system that works. It's time to begin the national conversation about changes we need to make so our immigration policies help us build the next American century.
Talent is our most vital natural resource. Our prosperity as a nation will depend on our ability to educate our own students and attract the best, brightest and hardest-working people from around the world to our shores.
Our current immigration laws favor family relationship, including extended family. Our laws also allow tens of thousands of people to come to America each year through a lottery system. In a world where talent will determine prosperity, we shouldn't leave immigration to chance.
When the Homeland Security secretary, with the input of border governors, are able to certify that the United States has operational control of our borders and that America, and that it can rapidly detect when a person has come to America legally but has not left when their visa expires, we should transition to a new immigration system of national merit selection.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, our student visa program has not worked efficiently. As a result, talented young people are choosing to go to universities in Europe and Asia. America's universities are still the best in the world and can attract the most promising young people to this country. Graduating from an American university should not be an automatic ticket to U.S. residency. Still, those who want to stay in America should be eligible to apply for merit selection upon graduation.
The United States also should develop an agreement with Mexico to jointly operate a program for agricultural workers so willing employers can be matched more easily with employees when there is a shortage of agricultural labor in the United States.
We also must deal with those who are in the country illegally. The United States deports about 400,000 people a year, and the offer of prosecutorial discretion for minors has been taken up by just a very small percentage of those thought to be eligible.
First, people in the country illegally who are arrested for crimes other than their immigration status should be deported or prosecuted.
Second, as long as our borders are secure and our legal immigration system works, America should allow children brought here at a young age through no decision of their own to be absorbed into the rich fabric of America. These children were brought here when our borders were insecure. We must recognize that most of those children have little or no connection to the country of their birth, and we should not punish them for their parents' wrongs.
Finally, America should establish a process through community-based boards of accountability and normalization for illegal immigrants who have lived here for a long time, mastered English, bettered the lives of others beyond their own family, complied with American laws, worked and paid taxes, refrained from accepting welfare or public benefits for which they were not eligible, and are willing to acknowledge publicly that they broke the law and seek forgiveness and acceptance from the American people.
Those seeking normalization should be sponsored by an American who knows them personally and can attest that they would benefit America by staying. Such immigrants would not be eligible to apply for citizenship for some years. They would not be eligible to sponsor other family members for visas or for public benefits such as welfare, public housing or publicly funded health care.
This needs to be a process of repentance, accountability, demonstration of merit and forgiveness, not a bureaucratic process of checking paperwork. The process of normalization itself will help America and immigrants move forward to a better place.
Ideas like these will get our country beyond the sterile debates of the past seven years on immigration. It's time to begin the conversation.
Heather Wilson was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing New Mexico from 1999 to 2009.
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