As with many issues today, the debate on immigration is mired in partisan opposition instead of pragmatism. At one time, nearly everyone agreed that illegal immigration was a problem, but now one side acts as if it's a "human right" to live anywhere you want while the other suggests anyone here illegally is up to something nefarious.
Even where people understand the space between, we have no real solutions that address the disease rather than the symptoms.
During the Obama administration, the bipartisan Senators known as the Gang of 8 attempted comprehensive reform with S. 744, the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.”
While the bill passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support, the House didn’t act on it and it expired. Now the talk revolves around some sort of deal: action on DACA in exchange for funding for the wall.
With Donald Trump’s ascension as the Republican frontrunner during the 2016 election, a nationalistic tone became more prevalent, accompanied by accusations of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Trump’s lack of nuance in addressing concerns ranging from criminals crossing the southern border to Islamic extremists, along with a failure to quickly repudiate support from white supremacists all provided fodder for his opponents.
There is admittedly a universal discomfort, not just here but virtually anywhere in the world, when people face the possibility of their community being overrun with others who not only look different but don’t speak the same language and have an entirely different culture.
That’s human nature.
However, beyond culture shock, there are valid concerns about unfettered immigration that used to have bipartisan consensus. Peter Beinart commented in The Atlantic, “the myth, which liberals like myself find tempting, is that only the right has changed.”
In his 1995 State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton began to outline his plans for stemming illegal immigration by saying, “All Americans, not only in the States most heavily affected but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.”
As recently as 2006, musings from many including Glenn Greenwald, Paul Krugman, and then-Senator Barack Obama indicated clear concerns about the impact of illegal immigration. In 2008, the Democratic platform still referenced entering the country illegally as disrespect for the rule of law.
By 2016, that language was gone.
While the right appears to have become more xenophobic, has the left simply reacted? Unlikely, since the changes began long before the rise of Trump.
Beinart points out political roots of the Democratic shift:
“Between 2008 and 2016, Democrats became more and more confident that the country’s growing Latino population gave the party an electoral edge. To win the presidency, Democrats convinced themselves, they didn’t need to reassure white people skeptical of immigration so long as they turned out their Latino base. ‘The fastest-growing sector of the American electorate stampeded toward the Democrats this November,’ Salon declared after Obama’s 2008 win. ‘If that pattern continues, the GOP is doomed to 40 years of wandering in a desert.’ As the Democrats grew more reliant on Latino votes, they were more influenced by pro-immigrant activism.”
Full disclosure: while I am no more interested in seeing everything that’s familiar to me completely transformed than most others, I do not care who comes into this country under certain conditions:
a) They are willing to work;
b) They obey the law;
c) They respect our Constitution and our culture; and
d) They pay taxes.
Can we address the legitimate concerns without being accused of a lack of compassion? What is the answer? Neither a wall and draconian ICE raids nor claiming opposition to illegal immigration is all about racism and xenophobia is likely to provide solvency.
There are two components to the problem: one is putting a stop to illegal immigration; the other is badly needed reforms to the legal immigration system.
The two are intertwined because the challenges of the latter are an incentive to circumvent the law.
I don’t support a wall for a variety of reasons, starting with a huge expense, both immediate (construction) and long-term (monitoring), along with a disruption to private property and wildlife.
It doesn’t solve any problem other than maybe some of the illegal immigration from Mexico. Even so, it isn’t likely to halt those we should be primarily concerned about: drug traffickers or terrorists masquerading as Latinos.
It also doesn’t address the other three borders nor unauthorized immigrants who overstay their visas -- as many as 60% in some parts of the country. These cases now outnumber border crossings.
We need a fundamental change in philosophy regarding legal immigration as well.
The New York Times reported in early 207 that two-thirds of our immigrants come under the “family reunification” umbrella, based on having relatives already here.
“Family reunification sounds nice on an emotional level (who doesn’t want to unite families?). But it’s a lousy basis for government policy, since it lets dumb luck — that is, whether some relative of yours had the good fortune to get here before you — shape the immigrant population.”
So what can should be done?
1) Reform the guest worker VISA program as proposed by the Gang of Eight’s 744 and make it easier to enter legally enter for a visit or temporary work.
The changes in the 2013 proposal had input and support from a broad coalition including the AFL-CIO and the US Chamber of Commerce. When workers are here, they can also have access to information about how to become citizens or permanent residents.
2) Reform legal immigration so that people access the forms and process necessary to become citizens if they choose to do so at a reasonable price.
As mentioned above, having a difficult, expensive and even inaccessible process for even attempting to come here legally only exacerbates the problem. In addition it encourages the most desirable candidates to look elsewhere. Which brings us to...
3) Institute a merit-based system similar to Canada’s, not to limit immigration, but improve it.
It’s always ironic when we find our neighbors to the North and/or Europe taking a more pragmatic, economic-based approach to something that we do and fortunately, President Trump recognized this early on.
The Trump administration has looked at emulating Canada, where prospective immigrants are prioritized based on merit, evaluated by a points system.
Forbes contributor Louis Woodhill commented on this nearly 4 years ago as a better alternative to S.44: in this type of scenario, those most desirable would not be on a waiting list.
As soon as they demonstrate their benefit to this country and pass whatever background checks are needed, they would be admitted. This would not exclude other types of immigrants but would prioritize those most beneficial to the U.S.
It’s important to note that Canada’s policy isn’t based on limiting immigration, but winning the game. The NYT reports:
“Canada boasts one of the highest per-capita immigration rates in the world, about three times higher than the United States...and plans to increase the number in the years ahead. Canadian voters couldn’t be happier about it. Recent polls show that 82 percent think immigration has a positive impact on the economy….
Given the xenophobia now sweeping the rest of the West, Canadians’ openness might seem bizarrely magnanimous. In fact, it’s a reasonable attitude rooted in national interest. Canada’s foreign-born population is more educated than that of any other country on earth. Immigrants to Canada work harder, create more businesses and typically use fewer welfare dollars than do their native-born compatriots.”
4) Fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program through Congress
Also in play, although only with funding for the wall, according to the Trump administration, is a permanent fix.
Contrary to some popular myths, those eligible for DACA protection actually benefit the country more than the average immigrant. Moving away from tenuous Obama-era executive orders and early Trump announcements that it would be discontinued without a specific plan is the right thing to do.
5) Institute a transaction-based consumption tax so everyone pays in, largely eliminating the major economic concern of their presence.
Undocumented workers are often paid under the table, as are drug dealers. With this type of tax, anyone who lives here must pay taxes on the vast majority of things they buy.
There is a slew of other benefits to this, starting with reaping an estimated $500 billion in tax revenue from unreported income in the underground economy.
6) Deploy an identity-theft type system that tracks the activities of illegals and the Americans who do business with them.
Woodhill sees illegal immigration as a type of identity theft, which coincidentally is a serious and growing problem. As with the transaction-based tax, we can kill two birds with one stone. He writes:
“If it were against the law for Americans to employ, rent housing to, sell cars to, open bank accounts on behalf of, and provide government services to people here illegally, and there were an online system for instantly verifying identities, the problem of illegal immigration would be solved. People would not be able to remain in the U.S. illegally for very long, even if they were able to enter without difficulty.”
This would also address many of the complaints that enforcement has been tough on individuals but soft on businesses.
7) End the War on Drugs
While legalization of all drugs would almost completely undermine the cartels and trafficking, that isn’t likely to happen.
Despite Jeff Sessions’ efforts to move us backward, we should at least look at federal legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of everything else.
There are numerous benefits, including helping reform the prison industrial complex, but the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 90 percent of the drugs seized on the U.S.-Mexico border from 2005 to 2011 were marijuana.
Federal legalization would cause the cartels to lose a significant chunk of their profits and decrease the violence and trafficking across the border.
Encouraging other countries to do the same would help. Many people making the journey here are not looking for work, but fleeing violence in their own countries.
From around 2010-2015, the U.S. has received the most asylum applications from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, all of which have seen a sharp rise in drug-related violence over the last decade.
8) Prioritize court proceedings for criminal offenders so they are deported quickly.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, we can reasonably guess that as of 2015 we have an estimated 820,000 illegal immigrants with criminal convictions living here and of those, over 300,000 had a felony conviction.
Focusing on these individuals isn’t nearly as controversial and should allow for more cooperation between ICE and sanctuary cities.
Immigration policy is another area where Democratic and Republican lawmakers seem more interested in opposing each other than finding common ground. If they truly had compassion for either immigrants or American citizens, they’d work harder to implement solutions that address the legitimate concerns of both sides.