Immigration reform needs presidential leadership

One of the toughest issues facing this country is how to fix our broken immigration system. Immigration reform engenders strong emotions from both sides of the aisle, and leadership is critical to reform’s success.

The president’s recent campaign-like speech in Texas on the immigration issue left many wondering if there’s a real commitment from the administration for change, or if it’s simply part of a recipe for 2012 reelection success. Unfortunately, the president’s leadership on this issue has consisted only of pep rallies, speeches and meetings with Hollywood celebrities, all of which do very little to push progress on actual changes.

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The United States has benefited from the talents of diverse cultures coming to this country. It was this principle that guided many of us when we voted for the 1986 Reagan amnesty package. It took five years to agree on a legalization bill that was supposed to only benefit one million people. We were assured that it would be a one-time amnesty program. We were fooled — if you reward illegality, you only get more of it. That’s a fact. Now, we must learn from the mistakes we made 30 years ago. 

This debate is not just about our history — it’s about our future. It’s about fixing the system so future generations can benefit from what America has to offer. Simply put, we cannot have a short-term band-aid approach that only benefits lawbreakers who are currently in this country, while leaving behind those who have patiently waited through legal means. 

Americans agree that the border needs to be secured. While the administration might say it’s more secure today than ever, an independent study from the Government Accountability Office says that only 873 of the 2,000 miles separating the U.S. and Mexico are operationally controlled, meaning there’s a high probability to interdict or apprehend goods and people upon entry. The borders are porous, and there are victims of this vulnerability. Our country lost Border Patrol Special Agent Brian Terry to the war at the border. Arizona ranchers are being shot at trying to make a living. We’re simply not ready to unfairly legalize a population estimated to be between 12 and 20 million illegal aliens.

The president has touted the success of the previous administration’s achievement in doubling our Border Patrol, but he can’t hide the fact that there’s a clandestine effort to ignore the laws on the books. You don’t need to look far beyond the internal amnesty memos that were circulated last summer outlining ways the president could circumvent Congress and grant legal status to millions. This administration is also being courted by advocates who want an executive order to halt all deportations; meanwhile, they have failed to assure the public that individuals with no right to be here are not currently being provided safe harbor. In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security granted 34,448 paroles and deferred actions, far more than those granted in the previous five years. 

It’s no secret that there are many people who are not happy with the progress made on immigration enforcement and border security. And, there are many who have been disappointed that more hasn’t been done to keep illegal immigrants here. However, there are many areas where we can find common ground, but we need more than campaign speeches from the president if we’re going to achieve genuine reform in this area. We need leadership.

As a U.S. senator, I took an oath of office to honor the Constitution. I bear a fundamental allegiance to uphold the rule of law. Many members of Congress will support reforms, but we won’t allow Uncle Sam’s welcome mat to be trampled on in the process. If the president considers immigration reform a priority, I will await a proposal from him that benefits future generations, not a short-sighted approach based on politics and reelection hopes.

Grassley is ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.