Border traffic and beltway gridlock


There are 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States. Many of them are doing jobs that – even in these hard times – US citizens will not take: harvesting our crops, taking care of our elderly and our young, and literally cleaning up after us. Many of them pay into social security, even though they will never be able to collect. They do this for one reason – to build better lives for themselves and their families.

The rhetoric is that these undocumented migrants have “cut in line” and need to apply legally to come to the U.S. As any employer of low-skilled workers can tell you, there is no line to wait in. Our legal immigration system is focused on family reunification and professional workers. It does not even begin to address our needs for low and unskilled workers, providing only 5,000 immigrant visas annually for this category.

Satirist Stephen Colbert famously made this point in September, when he became one of seven Americans who accepted the “Take Our Jobs” challenge by United Farm Workers and who, in a tongue-in-cheek campaign, invited American citizens and legal residents to become agricultural workers.

Meanwhile, chaos ensues at our porous Southern border. The answer to secure borders not only rests with increased enforcement, but by addressing the needs that drive undocumented migration in the first place. Jobs serve as a beacon to undocumented migration. Migrants who want to make an honest living to support their families and pursue the American dream suffer because they cannot achieve these ends without risking their lives and breaking the law. Yet, employers who break the law benefit with impunity – and employers who follow the law suffer with higher costs and low productivity. We must create legal avenues for honest employers to fill their labor needs and throw the book at employers who break the rules.

The anti-immigrant lobby, however, has been promoting its own “solution” – deport every undocumented migrant encountered, and make life so uncomfortable for the rest that they leave the U.S. of their own accord. While the Obama Administration removed nearly 400,000 people last year from the U.S. – more than were removed in a year by any previous administration – it only causes heartache and does little to control the undocumented population. Even if the border were hermetically sealed it would take more than 25 years to solve the undocumented migration problem with this strategy.

This election proved that many have lost all confidence in the federal government’s ability to address the various immigration challenges. Voters have turned to state and local governments to get undocumented migration under control. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer came to national attention for signing the controversial S.B. 1070 into law, which authorizes Arizona to assume federal immigration responsibilities abdicated by Congress. In five of the six other states where Republican gubernatorial candidates pledged to emulate S.B. 1070, that candidate won.

Converting local police into deportation and border patrol officers does nothing to address the underlying causes of undocumented migration, though it might be effective in pushing some undocumented migrants from one state to another. What the S.B. 1070 phenomenon has done, however, is emphasize one thing upon which we all agree: that the immigration system is broken, and Congress needs to stop the rhetoric and start to fix it.

George W. Bush has cited the failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) as his greatest disappointment with his own Presidency.  In spite of two major pushes by his administration – one with a Republican Congress, and the other with a Democratic Congress – he was unable to pass bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bills. The Obama administration, also supportive of CIR and with the Democratic party in control of both houses of Congress, was not able to get more than one Republican to even talk to Democratic counterparts in the Senate about immigration legislation. Consequently, no CIR legislation has even been debated by Congress under the Obama administration.

And now a dissatisfied electorate has split control of Congress creating a perfect storm of gridlock. Though this is a country founded by immigrants for immigrants, passing fair and compassionate immigration laws has been a struggle for the better part of this nation’s history. Not since the Holocaust, however, has this ultimate irony been so evident. In order for real change to be on the horizon, Congress must grapple with our dysfunctional immigration system – preferably comprehensively – and start doing so now.

Mark Hetfield is senior vice president for Programs & Policy at HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community.