At a young age, I learned all work has dignity. My father taught me that invaluable lesson, and I understood it clearly after working several different labor-intensive jobs as a young man. Like most fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, we are blessed with the birthright of citizenship because our ancestors saw America as we still want to see America now — a welcoming society that thrives on the diversity of ideas and hard work of a nation comprised of many peoples.
Over the last several months, the immigration debate has shown a spotlight on people who have come to this country illegally or refused to leave as they promised. The majority of these people work hard at jobs that many Americans prefer not to do. The construction laborers, the health-care assistants, the cleaning crews, the hospitality workers — these individuals contribute daily to the economy and continuity of the American way of life. Their work has value; it has dignity; their work ethic is commendable. Yet they are here by unlawful means in a country that asks its citizens to respect and uphold the rule of law. There is no getting around that notion, so the debate we are engaged in presently is a good and necessary one. However, a solution based solely on enforcement is not.
Without question, enforcement is an important and vital component of the immigration piece. During my tenure at Homeland Security, we moved aggressively to mend decades of lax border control. Overall border enforcement spending rose nearly 60 percent. We increased the number of Border Patrol agents by 40 percent. We deployed sophisticated detection equipment, including unmanned aerial vehicles and sensors. We created a single agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), that could devote its primary mission to securing our borders and another, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), that devoted its people to enforcing our immigration laws within our country.
We deployed a pivotal entry-exit immigration enforcement system, US-VISIT, that has enrolled more than 50 million travelers and identified more than 1,000 criminals and inadmissible aliens. We began using Expedited Removal to deter illegal entry by non-Mexicans and to maximize use of available detention beds.
We achieved a record number of deportations. We integrated legacy databases to identify tens of thousands of persons arrested or wanted by federal or local law enforcement. And we reduced the backlog of benefit applications by more than two-thirds to encourage people to use legal channels to come to the United States. My successor, Michael Chertoff, has continued this record of enforcement, including an expansion of Expedited Removal, increased crackdowns on employers and the Secure Border Initiative procurement.
Here’s the rub: All these accomplishments have been made by swimming upstream against the tide of illegal migrants and visa overstayers who have had few if any legal options to work in the United States. Trying to gain operational control of the borders is impossible unless our enhanced enforcement efforts are coupled with a robust Temporary Guest Worker program and a means to entice those now working illegally out of the shadows into some type of legal status.
Yes, we need to continue to do more at the border. We need to continue deploying US-VISIT to track the entry and exit of foreign guests legally entering the country, since at least 40 percent of our illegal population arrived legally to start. Additionally, much-needed budgetary enhancements will allow CBP and Border Patrol to hire more inspectors and agents and provide the technological support those dedicated individuals need.
These proposals would bring our enforcement capabilities to the level Americans deserve. However, even a well-designed, generously funded enforcement regimen will not work if we don’t change the immigration and labor laws that regulate how would-be workers can come to the United States. Moreover, once we create a lawful means for Mexican workers to transit our border, their government can no longer avoid its obligation to protect the integrity of our mutual border and an immigration system that protects their citizens.
With each passing year, our country’s shifting demographics leaves a shrinking number of workers, especially at the less-skilled end of the economy. Entire industries in a growing number of urban and rural areas depend on large illegal populations. Existing law allows only a fraction of these workers to enter the country legally, though our unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent.
This labor market entices thousands of individuals, most from Mexico, to cross our border or remain after a temporary visa expires. The Department of Homeland Security apprehends roughly 1 million migrants illegally entering the United States each year, but perhaps 500,000 succeed in crossing or refusing to leave on time.
Thus, border enforcement will continue to fail so long as we refuse to allow willing workers a chance to work legally for a willing employer. The current flow of illegal immigrants and visa overstayers has made it extremely difficult for our border and interior enforcement agencies to focus on terrorists, organized criminals and violent felons who use the cloak of anonymity offered by the current chaos.
That chaos has left us with a mass of illegal workers, most of whom have committed no serious crime other than their illegal entry. Despite a record performance on deportations from ICE the past two years, at current rates it would take nearly 70 years to deport all of the estimated 11 million people living here illegally, even if not a single new illegal alien entered our territory.
Attempting to deport everybody is neither feasible nor wise. Instead, we need to prioritize our enforcement against the small percentage of illegal residents who have established criminal enterprises, committed violent crimes or are associated with terrorism. The overwhelming majority of long-term residents who have maintained employment in the United States without evidence of criminal or terrorist ties should be granted the opportunity to make, in essence, a plea bargain with law enforcement. By paying a stiff fine and undergoing a thorough security check, these individuals can make amends for their mistake without crippling our economy and communities in the process.
To those who call this amnesty, each day we fail to bring these people out of the shadows is another day of amnesty by default. Each day that passes calls for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. Each day calls for a long-term plan to legally fill the jobs our economy is creating. Each day calls for us to give our enforcement agencies a fighting chance to detect and deport those who would use our welcoming nature to do us harm.
All work has dignity. So let us seek a solution with dignity — as well as practicality and in complement to the character of a nation that brought so many of our citizens and our families here these last 230 years.
Tom Ridge served as governor of Pennsylvania and as the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.