By Edward Alden, New America Media
After several years of failed efforts, Congress appears set to take another crack at reforming the nation's antiquated and dysfunctional immigration laws. President Obama has made it clear that immigration reform is among his top priorities.
There is no issue that is more important to the long-term well-being of the United States.
According to a report released July 8 by the Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, a group of prominent Republicans and Democrats convened by the Council on Foreign Relations, the failure to get immigration policy right is having serious consequences for America's standing in the world. This country's openness to and respect for immigration has long been a foundation of its economic and military strength, and a vital tool in its diplomatic arsenal.
The United States attracts an extraordinary share of the world's brightest and most ambitious immigrants, an incalculable advantage in a global economy where huge advantages accrue to the most innovative countries. To take one of many examples, some 40 percent of science and engineering PhDs from American universities are awarded to foreign students. But Washington's inability to develop and enforce a workable system of immigration laws threatens to undermine the enormous benefits that immigration has brought to this country.
The Task Force, which was chaired by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former White House chief of staff Mack McLarty, shows that a bipartisan consensus can be found on a sounder, more sensible approach. The basic principles should not be controversial: that America should generously welcome immigrants, as well as others who wish to visit, study, invest or work temporarily in this country, through an orderly and efficient legal system. At the same time, the United States must effectively control and secure its borders, denying entry to those who are not permitted and denying jobs to those not authorized to work here.
But achieving those ends will require that all sides in this debate recognize that there is plenty of blame to go around, and it is time to move forward. The current enforcement campaign, as laid out in the report, has given America a black eye in much of the world.
It is not fitting for a nation of immigrants to be separating families, locking up people for months or even years on often minor immigration violations, and building hundreds of miles of fence on its borders. At the same time, critics of these measures must recognize that they are a response to the longstanding, rampant violation of immigration laws in a country built on the rule of law.
On the other side, there is no evidence that enforcement alone is an effective policy. Illegal immigration has slowed primarily because the U.S. economy is in a deep recession and the demand for employees of all sorts has dried up. Yet there is little sign that unauthorized immigrants - who have homes, families and lives in the United States - are leaving in any significant numbers. If there is no reform of immigration laws, the problem will continue to fester for many years and even generations, creating security risks for the country, undercutting wages and working conditions for other employees, and leaving the immigrants themselves vulnerable to abuses, jail, and deportation.
The Task Force argues that there are three critical components to reforming the immigration system. First, the United States needs an overhaul of its legal immigration system so that it responds more efficiently and accurately to the needs of the labor market in a way that enhances the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. The current system operates on the basis of rigid quotas that block American companies from hiring the best workers, keep families divided, and leave many of those who make it here in a prolonged temporary status that provides no security to themselves or their families.
These restrictions are not just an issue for skilled workers; the annual quota for immigration by unskilled workers without family ties in the United States is an absurdly low 5,000. Fixing the legal immigration system will take money, but it is an investment that will pay off enormously. Currently the United States spends five or six times as much on enforcement as it does on processing legal immigrant applications--and all of the expenses on the legal side are paid by fees on the immigrants themselves.
What does it say about U.S. policy that we are willing to spend billions of dollars keeping out the people we don't want, but nothing to attract those we do want?
Secondly, the United States needs to restore the integrity of immigration laws through an enforcement regime that strongly discourages the hiring of unauthorized workers, provides greater control over America's borders, and levies significant penalties against those who violate the rules. Critics of immigration enforcement must recognize that the enforcement is here to stay. What the United States needs is more effective and humane methods of enforcement, focused primarily on the workplace and on employers.
Most immigrants who come here illegally come to find jobs at wages much higher than they could earn at home. Stopping that will require comprehensive electronic verification system for employees and tamper-proof identity cards to prevent fraud. It means rewarding companies that follow those rules, but punishing harshly, including with criminal penalties, those that don't.
Finally, the United States needs to offer a fair, humane, and orderly way to allow many of the roughly 12 million migrants currently living illegally in the United States to earn the right to remain legally. This last point has been, and will continue to be, the most controversial element of the immigration debate. There is no alternative but for advocates of reform to push back vigorously on the claim that this constitutes "amnesty."
An amnesty is a free ride. Even the most generous legalization proposals in Congress would require that those here illegally demonstrate a long period of gainful employments, pass criminal and national security background checks, pay substantial fines, and demonstrate basic mastery of English or a commitment to learn. It is a demanding list, and many will not meet the standard.
There will be objections to moving ahead with any sort of immigration reform in an economy where the official unemployment rate is nearing 10 percent and the real figure may be almost twice that. There is no question that the urgent need in the economy right now is for more jobs, not more workers. But immigrants have long been a vital part of the dynamism of the American economy, and creating a more sensible immigration system is fundamental to building a more prosperous future for all Americans. The Task Force, which was made up of people from diverse political stripes whose only common conviction was that the United States can and must do better in its immigration policy, shows that progress is possible. It is time for the administration and Congress to move forward.
Edward Alden is the project director for the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy.
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