This year, Congress will engage in a momentous debate on immigration. We all agree that our nation’s immigration system is in desperate need of repair and that it is not working as efficiently and fairly as it should be. But the issues plaguing it are vast and complex.
While it is imperative that we fix our immigration system, it’s also important to examine each piece in detail, because any reform will have significant implications for the direction of our nation. We need to seek feedback and input from the American people and also methodically evaluate our current laws and their enforcement, as well as proposals to bring those unlawfully present in our country out of the shadows.
For example, legal permanent residents often have to endure years of separation before they can be united with their spouses and children. Prospective immigrant workers with approved petitions also often have to wait years for green cards to become available.
Additionally, every year thousands of foreign students come to study science, technology, engineering and math — so-called STEM fields — at U.S. universities. While these foreign graduates are often in demand by American employers, many of them end up on the green card waiting list for years. As a result, many of these foreign graduates go back to their home countries and work for one of our global competitors.
We also need to look more critically at our current legal immigration programs and determine whether or not they are meeting the needs of our nation.
Presently, our immigration laws do not prioritize immigrants based on the skills and education they bring to our country. We select only 12 percent of our legal immigrants on the basis of these qualities, whereas the other main immigrant-receiving countries of Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada each select more than 60 percent of their immigrants on this basis.
At the same time, we give away tens of thousands of green cards each year based on the luck of the draw through the diversity lottery. It’s clear that we need to have a serious conversation about the goals of our legal immigration system.
Our temporary agricultural guestworker program needs to be reformed so that it benefits U.S. growers, consumers and guestworkers. Our laws erect unnecessary hurdles for farmers who put food on America’s tables. Many growers find the current guestworker program so unworkable that they avoid using it altogether.
The Judiciary Committee is also examining the history of immigration enforcement and how to avoid the failures of the past. We have a lot of questions about why our immigration laws have not always been sufficiently enforced. Although the infamous 1986 immigration overhaul promised sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants, those sanctions were never seriously enforced. It’s estimated today that seven million illegal immigrants work in the U.S. Administrations, past and present, have not enforced the laws on the books. That includes border enforcement as well as interior enforcement.
While much attention is paid — and rightly so — to the lack of enforcement at the borders, a lesser known fact is that approximately 40 percent of those unlawfully present in the U.S. come here legally but overstay their authorized period of time. A successful enforcement strategy must involve improvements to both border and interior enforcement efforts.
These are just a few of the issues plaguing our legal immigration system, not to mention the larger question of how to address the estimated 11 million individuals unlawfully present in the U.S. Many have called for earned citizenship for these illegal immigrants, but the American people have a lot of questions about how a large-scale legalization program would work, what it would cost and how it would prevent illegal immigration in the future.
America is a nation of immigrants. Everyone among us can go back a few or several generations to our own relatives who came to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families. But we are also a nation of laws. Immigration reform must honor both our history as a nation of immigrants and our foundational principles grounded in the rule of law. Congress must not rush to legislate. We need to take the time to learn from the past so that our efforts to reform our immigration laws do not repeat the same mistakes. It’s not a race; it’s about getting it right.
Goodlatte is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.