Working across the aisle to solve problems with our broken immigration system
© Getty Images

After a bipartisan evening visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., a few months ago, we found ourselves engaged in a deep conversation about immigration, and the challenges we face. Despite the differences in our districts and ideologies, the two of us resolved to bring fellow new members from our respective parties together to discuss immigration and see if we could find some common ground.

Our first meeting had a dozen people – half Republican and half Democrat. With no staff or press in the room, we shared with each other why solving the problems in our immigration system is important to us. For many of us, we have personal connections to the issue: one of us has delivered hundreds of babies of immigrants; another is an immigrant herself. For all of us, we recognize that the rhetoric around immigration is neither true nor conducive to finding real solutions.

ADVERTISEMENT
At first glance, Washington’s 7th District—encompassing Seattle and its surrounding areas—and Kansas’s ‘Big First’ have little in common. Washington’s 7th district is one of the most Democratic districts in the nation, while the 1st district in Kansas falls squarely on the other side of the political spectrum. But in both states, immigration is critical to our state’s economy.

In Washington state, 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. These firms produce $249.9 billion in annual revenue and provide more than 400,000 jobs worldwide. The same is true in Kansas, where 56 percent of the state’s Fortune 500 companies—generating $13.1 billion per year in revenue and providing 11,078 jobs—were founded by immigrants or their children.

In Washington state, immigrants work in some of America’s top technology companies, serve as doctors and researchers in some of the country’s best hospitals and research institutions, and pick apples and berries in the fields. Immigrants power many of the industries that fuel our state’s economy, but they also have been integrated over decades into our communities, schools and neighborhoods.

In Kansas, immigrants make the dairy industry run, strengthen the farms that provide the food on kitchen tables across the world, and helped the Kansas agriculture industry become the international powerhouse it is today. Our farms, local economy and groceries you buy depend on immigrant labor.

Calling this work in the dairies of Kansas or the fields of Washington “low-skilled” is a misnomer. If you were to tour farms throughout Kansas or the apple orchards of Washington, you would witness labor that is physically demanding and requires a talent that is only perfected over years of practice.  

Today, the entire immigration system is broken, and that dysfunction shows itself in many ways. A majority of agricultural visas and high-tech visas are used up within days of issuance. In addition, H-2A visas, which allow U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals for temporary agricultural jobs, do not accommodate for year-round labor, which excludes dairy farm operations running 365 days a year. The process for keeping paperwork updated remains arduous, and is particularly felt by immigrants in rural communities who are forced to travel long distances to find a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office. Some U.S. citizens and green card holders must wait 20 years before they can bring their child into the country legally, due to an archaic system. Beyond hurting families, this bureaucratic mess hurts our businesses back home, ultimately hurting our economy and jobs market.

One Kansas farmer expressed that one of his hardest working employees has been with him for 14 years, and it took that employee a decade to finally gain citizenship. During that time, he took off valuable working days to drive hours to a USCIS office to ensure his paperwork remained compliant. Fees for citizenship and keeping documents up to date are not cheap.

The truth is that these workers want to provide valuable labor and we need that labor. We should give them a fair shot by creating a process that is easier to navigate, crosses over industries that utilize immigrant labor and keeps families together. 

We must face these issues with solutions. Our border is now more secure than ever. In 2017, illegal border crossings are at the lowest they have been in years and Congress has ensured funding for the U.S. Border Patrol remains high. Border security is just the first step in addressing this issue. Now, we must get to work on addressing the process.

One example is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Our resources, especially as they pertain to deportation, must remain focused on getting rid of people who wish to do harm to Americans – not a young person who is here simply due to circumstance. To date, nearly 800,000 young people have registered with the U.S. government, subjected themselves to vetting and showed their willingness to follow our laws. We cannot allow that to now be used against them in reverse order. Instead, Congress must use legal, legislative avenues to figure out how to help these young people. We must do right by them as well as the safety of the American public.

As new members of Congress, we came to Washington, D.C. to do what is right for our districts. We are not immune to the politics that exist, but we are closer than most to the needs of our communities and families. We want that closeness to our districts to translate into pragmatic action, and to remind us that regardless of party, we must tell the truth about our stories and our districts.

In the end, in our respective roles as a physician from rural Kansas, and a national immigrant rights advocate, we saw the same thing: immigrants are a vital part of America’s past and our future. Without the help of these folks, our economies and communities would not make it.

Representing the voices of people from Edmonds, Wash., to Garden City, Kan., as members of Congress from red and blue states, and as Americans who benefit from the tech and agricultural abilities that immigrants have brought to this country, it is our duty to put partisanship aside and continue this conversation.

It is time to reach across the aisle and to find a way to move forward in finally solving the problems facing our broken immigration system. Our constituents and our country demand it of us.

Jayapal represents Washington's 7th District and Marshall represents Kansas' 1st District.