A Call for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The United States has an immigration problem.

But it is simplistic to think that we can control our immigration problem simply by controlling our borders.  For years, that has been the line of thinking.  And, for years, we have spent more and more money to reinforce the border.  And, for years, more and more immigrants have come across that reinforced border.  So, we need to do more than apply simplistic analyses to this very complex problem.  Certainly, we need to look at border problems.  But we also need to look at U.S. businesses and their need for labor – both now and in the future.  And we need to look at our need for high-skilled immigrants.  And, clearly, we need to look for a realistic approach for dealing with the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for years.

Our Immigration System is Broken.  The root of the current crisis of undocumented immigration is a fundamental disconnect between today’s economic and labor market realities and an outdated system of legal immigration. Undocumented immigration is driven in large part by a U.S. labor market that is creating a higher demand for less-skilled workers than is being met by the native-born labor force or by the current legal limits on immigration. Migration from Mexico in particular has increased over the past two decades as the U.S. and Mexican governments have actively promoted the economic integration of the two countries. As the past decade and a half of failed federal border-enforcement efforts make clear, immigration policies that ignore these larger economic forces merely drive migration underground rather than effectively regulate it.  In short, there is an unsustainable contradiction between U.S. economic policy and U.S. immigration policy, and economics is winning. The problem is not undocumented immigrants, but a broken immigration system that sends the dual messages “Keep Out

Enforcement-Only Has Not and Will Not Work.  The federal government has tried for more than a decade to stop undocumented immigration through an ever expanding use of enforcement strategies.  The experiment has been a failure. From FY 1993 to FY 2005, the Border Patrol budget quadrupled from $362 million to $1.4 billion and the number of agents nearly tripled from 3,965 to 11,300. Most of these resources were devoted to fortifying traditional border-crossing locales in the southwest. Despite these efforts, the pace of undocumented immigration to the United States has increased.  The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the number of immigrants entering the country in an undocumented status, or falling into undocumented status by overstaying a visa, rose from about 400,000 per year between 1990 and 1994, to 575,000 per year between 1995 and 1999, to 850,000 per year between 2000 and 2005.  As the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded years ago, heightened border-enforcement efforts primarily have shifted undocumented immigration from one place to another and have motivated more prospective migrants to hire human smugglers to guide them into the country.

Immigrants Are Less Likely to Commit Crimes.  It makes little sense to continue pouring federal money and personnel into an enforcement-only strategy that does not work. It makes even less sense to force local and state police departments to go along for the ride. Turning police into immigration agents would destroy the community trust that many police departments have spent years building. The breakdown in this important relationship means many people – and not just illegal immigrants – will be less likely to report crimes or to cooperate in criminal investigations if they fear that doing so could lead to deportation of them, a family member, friend, or neighbor. This loss of public trust would not only undermine crime-prevention, but would erode national security as members of immigrant communities become even more afraid than they already are to offer tips to government authorities on potential security threats.  There also is the problem of paying for local enforcement of federal immigration law.  As Philadelphia Police Commissioner Johnson has testified before the Senate, local police already are doing more with less money.  If they also must enforce federal immigration laws but are not given federal funds to do so, “enforcement of local and state laws, as well as our Homeland Security duties, would be compromised.

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