As so many before me have said, America is a nation of immigrants. For hundreds of years, immigration has shaped and transformed the economic, social, and political development of this country. Immigrants have played a substantial role in every major economic transformation in our history. From innovators and entrepreneurs who create jobs, to family members who help build stable communities, to everyday workers who help drive the engine of our economy, immigrants are part of the fabric of America. And we are a better and stronger nation as a result. The overwhelming weight of the research shows that immigrants have a profoundly positive impact on our society, our economy, and on the wages and employment opportunities of the native workers with whom they work side by side every day.

Despite that overwhelming evidence, we find ourselves once again in an era characterized by fear and anger, where political rhetoric and blame for social and economic challenges are directed toward the most recent wave of immigrants. Over and over again, America romanticizes the immigrants of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but when it comes to new arrivals, we question whether they are as valuable, patriotic, or law abiding as those who came before them. And time and time again, new immigrants have proven they carry with them the same dedication to building a better life for themselves and their children, and the same commitment to making their new homeland stronger than ever.

ADVERTISEMENT
I went before Congress this week to urge them to reform the immigration system in a way that brings it into the 21st century. I asked them to create a flexible, smart system that responds to the demographic realities of the U.S. population, the needs of American families, and the demands of the U.S. economy, while ensuring fair wage levels and humane working conditions for all workers, native and foreign-born alike. I emphasized that these goals can be achieved while creating a system that operates effectively so that employers can hire needed workers quickly and efficiently, and families can be united with their loved ones in a timely manner. Immigration reform is an achievable objective.

We live at a time when the foreign-born share of the U.S. population is roughly the same as it was in the latter half of the 19th century and the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Nevertheless, some observers pretend that we are in the midst of an unprecedented migratory onslaught that threatens to deluge the nation, rob native-born workers of their jobs and completely change the nature of our society. But that’s not how immigration works. The Italian and Eastern European immigrants who were feared by so many at the turn of the 20th century didn’t destroy our nation, they strengthened it and made it better. And the Latin American and Asian immigrants who are coming here now aren’t destroying it either.

For decades, our immigration system has been ruled by arbitrary numerical quotas and strict formulas that rob it of the flexibility and adaptability it needs to function well. Our laws remain frozen in a time before cell phones, computers, and the exodus of millions of baby-boomers out of our labor force and into retirement. For decades, Congress has failed to overhaul our immigration system despite the growing mountain of evidence that the current system is outdated and needs to be reengineered to meet the needs of our 21st century economy. 

Immigration reform bills have been introduced in Congress many times over the past few years to no avail. What our nation requires is leadership to get the job done, and a recognition that our shared prosperity depends on us remaining a nation of immigrants, one with an immigration system that truly works for America.

Johnson is executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.