Like the fiscal cliff, immigration reform poses daunting political challenges. No issue raises passions and prejudices more. That’s because immigration is visceral: it is about our national soul; our essence as individuals, as a people, as a culture, and as a nation. Immigration is about where we have been and where we are going. It is about what kind of a country we want to be. Do we want to be a welcoming nation that opens its arms to people from all over the world, and from all walks of life? Or do we want to isolate ourselves, turn our backs on those in need, and restrict out of ignorance and xenophobia critical opportunities for engineers, entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers and scientists like Einstein, who was, by the way, a refugee?
We all want to keep our borders safe. But continued border security depends on an immigration policy that works — a policy that is safe, orderly, and fair — and that promotes rather than destroys families and businesses, and enables America to compete in a global economy.
In 1989, in his final address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan described his vision of America as a shining city. He said:
“[I]n my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And (if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here).”
Reagan understood that America’s strength is its openness: its celebration of creativity and new ideas. We can only hope that those who claim his legacy heed his lesson. We are a welcoming nation, and it’s our job to put a human face on all of the immigrants who grace our shores, no matter how they got here.
As the national conversation now turns to immigration policy we must remember the simple truth that immigration is good for America. It is good for America to reunite families and bring in the best and the brightest to our universities, research institutions and industries; it is good for America to create a system for skilled and unskilled workers that promotes our economy and enables employers to grow their businesses; it is good for America to legalize 12 million undocumented workers whose full participation in the U.S. workforce will increase the wages and working conditions of all Americans by adding as much as $1.5 trillion to the gross domestic product over the next ten years, by adding $5 billion in consumer spending and by creating nearly a million jobs; and it is good for America to live up to its commitment to due process and the rule of law.
The American people instinctively understand this. A recent CNN poll found that 65% of registered Republicans, Democrats and Independents support overhauling our dysfunctional immigration system — including giving the millions of undocumented immigrants a chance to earn their way to a green card and, eventually, U.S. citizenship. And, as a matter of basic politics, neither party can afford to ignore the growing influence of Latino voters who overwhelmingly support an immigration overhaul.
The 113th Congress has a unique opportunity. Its members can put politics aside for the good of the nation, get to work for the American people, and hammer out a safe, functional, and compassionate immigration system. Done right, immigration reform will create jobs for U.S. workers, keep American families safe and together and give American businesses the tools they need to remain competitive in a global economy.
Let’s hope they seize this historic moment.
Leopold is general counsel at American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).