Nearly everyone agrees that our current immigration system is broken. There are somewhere between 10 and 30 million people in this country who either entered illegally or overstayed their visas after entering legally. While some choose this route because of a criminal history, many more do so because the process for legal immigration is time-consuming, expensive, and uncertain due to antiquated quotas. The current system also gives more weight to sponsoring employers than it does to family relationships. The reality is, as long as America is prosperous and a beacon of freedom and opportunity, people will want to come here. No fence or series of sentry posts will change that fact.
Many of the people who are here illegally work, send their children to school and maintain homes. Most of them also do their best to not attract the attention of law enforcement for obvious reasons. They attend churches, send their children to school and hope that one day their children will have better lives than they have been able to afford.
Conservatives (and I count myself among them) like to proudly proclaim that the USA is the “greatest country on God’s green Earth” to quote one talk show host. Yet we act surprised that people from all over the world (and especially our neighbors to the south) share this belief and want to share in this great nation’s wealth of opportunity. Most of the people who are here illegally are here because they see the opportunities available to them here, even when they have to constantly look over their shoulders in fear of deportation. And yet, in spite of these fears, they would rather stay here than go back to the place of their birth. They believe in the American dream regardless of whether or not they know that particular phrase. We should applaud their desire to improve their lives through hard work and risk taking.
As things stand, many of these people are stuck in low skill, low wage jobs, sometimes working in unsafe conditions because they are afraid to complain or seek better options. One of the arguments used against a path to legal status is that we believe in law and order. The fact of the matter though, is that the current situation allows many employers to violate wage and safety laws because the people working for them are afraid to say anything, even when an employee is injured or killed. If we truly believe in law and order, we should want to correct a system that allows employers to skirt the laws and treat people as a commodity because those people have no legal protection. The argument that if they didn’t hire illegals this wouldn’t be the case is not lost on me, but the fact of the matter is they do, and under the current system, there is no reason to believe this practice will change.
As I see it, a revised immigration policy needs to do several things. It needs to ensure better border security to keep criminals out of the country. It should also establish policies and procedures that make it more likely that those who desire to come here for the right reasons are much more likely to pursue legal options rather than sneak in. It also needs to help employers identify who can legally work and impose penalties on those who do not do so. Finally, it must address those who came here illegally but have otherwise stayed out of trouble.
Better border security is a concept that almost everyone regardless of ideology supports. The question is implementation. Many suggest that running a large imposing double layer fence from Brownsville to San Diego is the solution here. For large stretches of the border, this is reasonable. However there are other places where this is not practical and other methods need to be employed. These other methods can include electronic surveillance that is monitored and reacted to in real time, border patrol agents actually present on the ground and aerial surveillance.
Interior enforcement would require that people who enter illegally would not be eligible for federal programs such as medicaid, AFDC, WIC, SNAP and similar programs. In fact, this is already the case. However, these programs become tricky because if the child is a US citizen and the parents are not, the child is eligible for these programs and the courts have ruled that social service officers are not law enforcement officers and cannot inquire about the parents’ legal status when determining the eligibility of a minor to receive assistance. Basically the rule is that you don’t punish the child for the actions of the parents and you don’t use public assistance for needy children as a means to punish the parents.
The other aspect of interior enforcement falls to employers. The only real way to do this is to create a national standard for a tamper proof id card to be issued by the states and a federal database that would allow employers to simply swipe the card, and have the data verified against the federal data base. By making employment eligibility easy to verify, the likelihood of employers actually verifying eligibility goes up substantially. Providing penalties for not doing so would further increase the chances that employers would ensure that a prospective employee can legally work in the US.
There is also the issue of income taxes and social security. Every person who works in the U.S. is required to pay taxes (income, social security, and medicare) on their income. However for many of these immigrants who work only day jobs and contract jobs wind up paying no taxes. A comprehensive immigration reform would make it more likely that employers would report the income of these immigrants and make it more likely that taxes would be paid and returns filed. Additionally, a true comprehensive bill could make establishing legal status contingent on paying taxes on income from past years where no returns were filed. Of course, this would wind up being an estimate based on little or no documentation, but it would be something.
My proposal for the millions that are here is as follows. After they have submitted to a background check against US data bases and where possible similar databases in the country of origin, the applicants could be issued a 2 to 3 year work visa. As those work visas near expiration, ICE could verify regular employment, English proficiency, that children are attending school and that the criminal record is still clean. They would also pay a fine for crossing the border illegally and pay an estimate of back taxes. Once all this is complete, the applicant could be eligible for permanent resident alien status, but not citizenship. I still hold that if citizenship is desired, a return trip to the country of origin and initiation of the process from that point should be required.
The reality is that the federal government does not have the resources to simply round up and deport millions of illegal aliens. It is also true that a large percentage of these immigrants simply want to work, get paid, and build a better life for their families than they believe is possible in their country of origin. This has always been the lure of the United States. I do not want criminals coming into this country any more than anyone else. We need vigorous border enforcement and applicant screening to keep out drug dealers and gang members. But the reality is that a vast majority of those who have come here illegally, have done so seeking the same American dream that you and I take for granted. Do we believe that we have more God given rights than someone else because of the geography of our birth? Stand on the banks of the Rio Grande in El Paso. Look to the south and then look to the north, and then tell me that you would not do whatever you had to in order to make it to the United States. Yes they broke the law, but it was not out of malice or criminal intent. And justice demands that this reality be taken into account when passing sentence on people who came here looking for work and a better life.
The sad fact is that this issue could have been resolved in 2008 with a Republican senator and a Republican president leading the charge. But instead, we dug in our heels insisting that any kind of legal status was amnesty, regardless of fines being paid or other penalties. Since then, the political pressure has only ratcheted up and we continue to oppose any path to legal status for those who came here illegally. If for nothing more than pure political reasons, the time is now for a Republican controlled Congress to propose and pass a bill that, like the McCain-Feingold bill addresses all of the topics listed above. If the party is viewed as anti-immigrant, it will quickly become a minority party and stay that way for a long time. I am not saying that the Republican party is anti-immigrant, but we certainly make it easy for Democrats to portray us to be so. Enacting a well thought out, reasonable, compassionate, and just immigration reform bill will go a long way to proving that they are wrong when they make those accusations.