As the former lead GOP staffer for Latin America on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I am far from unacquainted with the debates and controversy around comprehensive immigration reform. And both have, unfortunately, missed a key point: While the reasons to reform the existing system are abundant, at its core it is in the United States’s interest to do so.
Recently, GOP legislators from the House and the Senate convened to discuss how the party might move forward with immigration reform.
But the endgame is no longer their most pressing concern. In many ways, the damage — especially to U.S. legislators’ image, both at home and abroad — has already been done. With each development in the debate, it has become increasingly clear that a critical mass of the U.S. political culture is and has been unreceptive to long-overdue reform.
In Latin America, where the majority of illegal immigrants to the United States originate, citizens and governments are closely following the debate over reform and would positively receive comprehensive change to the system.
A bill providing legal status to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living within U.S. borders would help to reverse the region’s perception that the U.S. government treats Hispanics as second-class citizens, acknowledging instead what many feel is their existing right to have a chance at obtaining legal residency and eventual citizenship.
Passing the bill would also demonstrate to the region’s governments that the United States is willing to work on issues important to its counterparts throughout the hemisphere, even when those issues stir up conflict at home.
In short, comprehensive immigration reform could help redefine perceptions of the United States in the region, sending the message that the U.S. government recognizes the region’s and its people’s importance in our own prosperity moving forward.
The issue, though, is an inherently inter-mestic one (both domestic and international). At least as much as reform matters for perceptions of the United States abroad, the bill is pivotal here at home.
As the bill has been subject to intense scrutiny on both sides of the aisle, evidence has mounted demonstrating its value and practicality for the United States, in terms of both the economy and national security.
The Congressional Budget Office released its analysis of the effects of the Senate bill on the U.S. budget and found that, even given the costs of increasing border security, the legislation would likely reduce the budget deficit by as much as $700 billion by 2033. As it stands, the bill promises 700 miles of additional fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as a doubled border patrol in the coming years. It garnered broad, bipartisan support in the Senate for its commitment to improving U.S. security.
But still, too many policymakers have flocked — or, in some cases, begrudgingly crawled — toward immigration reform in an effort to woo Hispanic voters.
And, in some sense, we can hardly blame them. Hispanics make up about 17 percent of the U.S. population, making them the country’s largest minority. Providing a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. could add another 11 million people to that group.
When voting on immigration reform, so the argument goes, Republican legislators are forced to choose between pleasing their (presumably anti-reform) constituents and wooing the growing Hispanic voter base. Still, immigration reform shouldn’t be about which voters lawmakers should pander to. After all, immigration reform is in the United States’ interest.
Ultimately, the controversy over the bill has made and continues to make America look bad, in Latin America especially. Lawmakers’ willingness to snub the largest and fast-growing minority population in the country suggests a lack of legislative foresight. And while supporting immigration reform solely to garner votes might seem self-interested, those who refuse even that strategic calculation are denying the inevitable: America’s demographics are changing.
It is, at the end of the day, important to remember that most of those who are waiting for the Congress to give them legal status are productive (would-be) citizens deeply committed to American principles. The very values that immigrants seek — individuality, freedom and opportunity for those who earn it — are the same ones that underwrite our way of life. They have already decided: regardless of the legislative outcome, they chose America.
As the debate rages on in the halls of Congress, legislators are at odds over who deserves to be American. But within our borders, there live millions of immigrants who, from far and wide, have already made the United States their home and its principles their compass. To them, whatever happens in Congress will determine if the nation they claim as their own returns the favor.
Perhaps former President George W. Bush said it best: It’s time “to fix a broken system, to treat people with respect and have confidence in our capacity to assimilate people.” Here’s hoping Congress can come together and do just that.
Meacham is the Americas Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.