The president’s policy of separating immigrant families from their children at the border is an appalling reaction to an immigration problem that both parties helped create. It goes against every value for which this country – as a beacon of freedom, human rights and hope – has long stood, and brought worldwide scorn, deservedly so.
Let’s be clear: immigrant families arriving at the border to claim asylum, to escape the violence in their own country or simply to start a new and better life here must be kept together, even those families entering the country illegally, which is a misdemeanor. That we are even debating this shows how far American values have been weakened by our poisonous political discourse.
Now that President Trump has given in to public outcry and reversed his disastrous policy, perhaps both political parties can finally work together to deal with the immigration issue. But don’t count on it.
The last time major changes to our immigration laws were made was more than 30 years ago. Since then, the divisions between the two parties have only worsened. The extreme voices in both parties are more intent on winning the day’s news cycle, attacking their opponents, often with false charges, and worrying about the next election than solving real problems.
This is true for most issues, but nowhere is it more evident than in the issue of immigration. Despite the harsh rhetoric and volatile disagreements, there is broad consensus that our immigration policies must be overhauled to reflect the evolving economic and cultural reality of America’s great diversity. The solutions are right in front of us. But reaching consensus means both sides have to be willing to give a little, to drop their soundbites and meet somewhere in the middle.
I envision a four-part strategy on immigration that incorporates some Democratic positions and some Republican ones, which I believe reflects the views of the overwhelming majority of Americans.
1. Define a path to citizenship. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. It is simply not economically or logistically practical to deport them all, and enforcement alone won’t work. Anyone here more than five years – who has worked, paid taxes and has no criminal record – should be able to earn citizenship through a rigorous process that includes background checks, paying a penalty and taxes, and learning English. We should also cover DACA recipients – young immigrants who came here with their families through no fault of their own – as well as people who are covered by the Temporary Protective Status from countries affected by armed conflict or national disaster. Keeping families of mixed immigration status together is the right thing to do.
2. Add more border security. Republicans often argue that all we need is tougher border security, while Democrats only want to offer a path to citizenship. Why not do both? We spend $17 billion a year on border enforcement, and the number of illegal crossings has decreased substantially.
In fact, despite what the president says, immigration on our southern border is more of a humanitarian issue than a security issue. Only a small number of illegal immigrants have any connection with criminal gangs.
Nevertheless, by utilizing new technology and greater manpower, we could reduce illegal crossings even further, from around 300,000 in 2017 to under 150,000. Whether a wall is the best solution versus some combination of fencing, manpower and modern technology remains an open question.
3. Expand the national E-Verify program. Eight states require nearly all employers to use the federal government’s online “E-Verify” tool to check whether new hires are eligible to work in the U.S. But efforts to expand the mandate to all states have stalled, despite polls showing widespread support and studies showing it reduces unauthorized workers by more than one-third. We should mandate that every employer in every state use it. If people are uncertain whether they can get a job, they are much less likely to come to this country. We could temporarily exempt a few industries, such as hospitality and some agricultural jobs, that are currently facing serious labor shortages.
4. Increase legal immigration. To offset the reduction of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, we would need to increase the number of legal immigrants in order to fill the demand in our workforce. We need thoughtful public debate about how to prioritize these applicants and determine how many visas of each type to issue.
My priority list would include: people who have helped our military overseas; people who are ready to take jobs where we have labor shortages. (For example, in Maryland our crab industry is suffering from a shortage of workers who normally come here under temporary work visas.); families waiting to be reunited; and people fleeing persecution. We also need to overhaul our process for evaluating claims from refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced persons.
This four-part plan represents a comprehensive, common-sense solution to the illegal immigration challenges we face. These are not new ideas. Many of them have been offered before, but were delayed or discarded due to partisan infighting.
It’s time to try a different approach by meeting in the middle to propose workable solutions that most Americans support. Unfortunately, I’m convinced this won’t happen without new, independent leadership in Congress.
Photo Credit: Shawn Griffiths / IVN.us