Merit-based migration and border security are key to fixing immigration crisis

Merit-based migration and border security are key to fixing immigration crisis
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When your bathtub is nearly full, it's usually a sensible idea to turn down the spigot.

If only Congress and the White House can agree on that, we could have a historic deal in the next few weeks that secures legal status for minimally 800,000 "Dreamers" while securing the southern border and adopting more sensible policies to prevent further influxes of immigrants. 

Of course, nothing in Washington is that simple in these days of intense partisan rancor and inconsistent Twitter diplomacy by the White House. Mention of "The Wall" has become anathema to the Democratic base, not helped by the administration’s often crude portrayal of it as a vast physical barrier that Mexico will fund. Hard-line Republicans are opposed to allowing the Dreamers to stay, despite polls showing that most Americans think they should be allowed to stay and the blatant injustice of deporting hundreds of thousands of long-term U.S. residents that only know the United States as their home.

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Behind the rhetoric and bad blood, though, there is a pathway to an agreement by the time the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program expires on March 5 as long as moderates from both parties can come together and make a few compromises. 

 

Very few Democrats would say they are against border security and reducing illegal immigration. The primary issues lie in the inflammatory way it was presented as Trump’s winning campaign slogan. A "border wall system" isn't quite as catchy, but that is the term that every other senior official involved in the task uses — referring to a mix of a physical wall, fencing, surveillance cameras and even high-tech laser systems. Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Nielsen testified to Congress recently that there is no need for a wall from "sea to shining sea."

Even so, the Trump administration is requesting $18 billion for a 2,026-mile barrier — comprising about 864 miles of new wall and about 1,163 miles of replacement or secondary wall. In my view, the amount of physical wall, and the overall cost can be reduced substantially from those levels by employing "smart-border" techniques. By far the most promising technology that I have seen is LIDAR, a system that uses lasers instead of radio waves to build up a 3-D image of potential border threats in real time that detects, tracks and classifies hundreds of meters before the anomaly touches U.S. soil. This kind of solution should appeal to both Republicans and Democrats — it is less politically incendiary and costly than a massive wall and much more effective. 

One issue, which the media seems to glaze over, and a major culprit of over 40 percent of undocumented residents are visa overstays. DHS is in the process of pilot testing an Entry-Exit system at air and land ports that will ensure that each future visitor is properly documented accordingly and if they decide to stay are known to law enforcers. 

When it comes to the legal immigration side of the equation, Congress simply must come up with a bill that gives the Dreamers a path to recognition. If not a pathway to citizenship, there should at least be a pathway to legality by issuing Green Cards to those who have clean criminal records and who have met minimum academic standards. In general, these are young people want to work rather than go on welfare and want the certainty that they can do so legally and not risk being sent back to countries they barely know.

Ideally, an agreement on DACA recipients should be part of a broader deal to fix our immigration system. The Trump administration is right to call for an end to the diversity lottery and introduce a more merit-based system while reducing "chain migration" whereby immigrants from one family follow each other to the U.S. Some Democrats are opposed to this, but those are all elements that are included in the bipartisan Graham-Durbin Senate bill that has since been shot down by the White House. Merit-based immigration should not be controversial. Canada, which is widely seen as a bastion of liberal, immigrant-friendly policies, has long practiced a merit-based system, helping to foster a more widespread appreciation of immigrants than is evident in the United States. 

Battle lines in Congress are drawn as several competing bills on DACA, and border security circulate in the House and Senate. Finding the middle ground will not be easy, and a lack of clarity on what the White House wants is not helping matters. But this chance to do justice to the Dreamers and fix our broken border security and immigration system is surely too important to miss. We need a fix so that we are not debating the same issue 10 years from now.

Nelson Balido (@NelsonBalido) is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.