Our immigration system is broken, and only bipartisan work will fix it

We have a serious challenge in this nation, and I hear about it from Nevadans all the time: Our immigration system is broken. Democrats, Republicans and Independents all agree, and history has shown that neither a piecemeal nor a border-only approach will work to fix this problem. Furthermore, the immigration law recently enacted in Arizona is clear evidence this problem will become worse the longer we wait to comprehensively address this on a national level.

In 2006 and 2007, I was a part of an effort to push for a federal, comprehensive approach to fix our system, secure our nation’s borders and institute tough, fair measures to govern our immigration process. The Senate passed a bill in 2006 that, unfortunately, the House refused to consider.  And in 2007, mischaracterizations of our effort by the bill’s opponents drove away some of the moderate Republicans who wanted to find common ground. President Bush supported this legislation. We spent more time on the issue of immigration in the 109th and 110th Congresses than any other because I felt it was that important. Three years later, it is no less important and still must be addressed. That’s why, led by Senator Charles SchumerCharles SchumerFive takeaways from New Hampshire Senate debate Chasing away scalpers only hurts consumers Reid: 'I have set the Senate' for nuclear option MORE (D-N.Y.) and building upon the bipartisan negotiations he has led for a year, Senate Democrats recently unveiled an outline of concrete ideas to move this dialogue forward – and we asked Senate Republicans to join us.

Immigration reform is vital to ensuring our national security. We need a system in place to prevent people from crossing our borders without our knowledge or permission. To achieve this, we should implement the most advanced border-control technologies.  While this infrastructure is put in place, we need to deploy additional personnel to the border to bolster our apprehension capabilities. We have to improve our system of tracking people entering the United States on legal visas and ensure their deportation if they overstay their welcome. This now is not being done. 

But securing our borders only solves part of this national security problem. There are approximately 11 million people living illegally in this country, and we do not know their names or whereabouts. This situation is unacceptable. People in the country illegally must be required to register with the government, pass criminal and national security background checks, obey the law, pay back taxes and learn English. After they get right with the law, they must go to the back of a very long line. This is the kind of tough, fair and practical approach to ensuring America’s security that is possible only through comprehensive reform.

Fixing our broken immigration system is also important to strengthen America’s economy. We need to protect American workers. Workers in Nevada and across America are often squeezed by unscrupulous employers who exploit immigrant workers here illegally and use them to undercut American wages. Immigrant workers know that complaining about illegally low wages or harsh working conditions could lead to deportation. Once these workers get right with the law, they will no longer serve as a cheap labor force that competes unfairly with American workers. 

To eliminate the possibility of a new illegal workforce in the future, we must have an electronic employment verification system that enables employers to know with certainty who is authorized to work. We must have tough enforcement and harsh penalties for companies who still hire workers who are not authorized to work. All of these steps will level the playing field for our workforce and strengthen our domestic economy. 

The challenge of fixing our broken immigration system, like so many other challenges we face today, can only be successfully addressed through bipartisan cooperation. Our initial outline of ideas was developed after substantial consultation with Republicans, and their input greatly enriched this framework. That process needs to continue if we are to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The political math in the Senate dictates Republicans must be our partners in this process. Simply put, this effort goes nowhere without serious Republican engagement and support, and we are hopeful their desire to secure our borders and protect American workers matches that of Democrats.

Some will always view this as an issue ripe for political posturing, but the fact is that every day the current system remains broken is another day we face economic and national insecurity. We need to treat this as a problem to be solved, not as an opportunity for politicians to score political points by preying on both our legitimate concerns and our prejudices. I remain committed to solving this problem because I believe our immigration laws can and should reflect both our interests and our values as Americans. We have to replace this broken system with one that works. 

Reid is the Majority Leader of the Senate.