Unfortunately, this reflexive, political targeting of the undocumented would undermine national security, harm the U.S. economy, and ultimately hinder one of the major goals of the proposed legislation: finally and fairly dealing with the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in this country.
The rationale for the triggers is that successive Congresses and administrations (whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans) have not achieved “operational control” of the border and that holding the undocumented as human collateral will guarantee that the border will be secured. This is a ruse. The truth is that holding the fate of undocumented immigrants hostage to border triggers has everything to do with opposing a “path to citizenship” and nothing to do with actually assuring that we “keep the promise” of border security.
Never mind that all previous metrics for border security have already been met; which suggests that the standards themselves are designed to be political sound bites and not real metrics of success. Why is it that that none of the proponents of triggers are suggesting that failure to meet the requirements of a trigger should result in the termination of the agricultural or high-skilled worker provisions of the bill (provisions that have more bipartisan support in the House and Senate than the legalization provisions)? Why is no one calling for the dismissal of the Secretary of Homeland Security, or a cut in the salaries of the Members of Congress overseeing the immigration-reform process—the people who actually have the power and responsibility to achieve results? These proposals are no less absurd than mandating that failure to establish “effective control” of the entire U.S.-Mexico border, or to build a biometric entry-exit system at every U.S. port of entry, or to successfully implement a nationwide employment eligibility verification system, should result in the paralysis of the entire legalization process.
More than that, stopping the legalization process dead in its tracks if an enforcement trigger is not met would harm, not help, national security. One of the central tenets of legalization is that national security is enhanced when undocumented immigrants come forward to register with the government and embark on a process of earning permanent legal status and eventual U.S. citizenship. This allows the federal government to focus its resources strategically on real threats to national security and public safety, rather than on nannies and gardeners whose sole offense was to enter or remain in the United States without authorization.
Placing random roadblocks also needlessly undermines the U.S. economy. Numerous studies have demonstrated that legal immigrants earn more than undocumented immigrants, and that naturalized U.S. citizens earn more than non-citizens. Higher earnings translate into more tax revenue, greater consumer purchasing power, and higher rates of savings and investment. This adds up to more jobs and more businesses throughout the U.S. economy. Plus, as the Congressional Budget Office just reported, the economic gains from legalization would slash hundreds of billions of dollars from the federal deficit. Delaying the legalization process for the sake of arbitrary enforcement triggers also delays the economic stimulus that legalization and citizenship of the undocumented can provide.
Moreover, legalization and a path to citizenship are the means by which formerly undocumented immigrants become integrated into U.S. society. Legal status is a powerful incentive for immigrants to improve their mastery of English, buy homes, become more involved in the civic life of the neighborhoods in which they live, and participate in the political process. If, for whatever reason, border-security triggers are not met on schedule, how does the nation benefit from slowing or delaying the integration of newly legalized immigrants?
Members of Congress who are currently debating the contours of immigration reform should not let the politically insatiable appetite for border security and immigration enforcement undermine a legalization process that has so many economic, social, and national-security benefits. Immigration reform will be most effective if all of its components are implemented and pursued at the same time.
Johnson is executive director of the American Immigration Council.