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True immigration reform requires compromise from both sides of the aisle

True immigration reform requires compromise from both sides of the aisle
© MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

One of the primary goals of our nation’s immigration policy is to protect refugees. The Biden administration announced Monday that it is raising the refugee ceiling to 62,500 people this fiscal year. Our nation has a long history of providing relief to individuals seeking protection in America because of persecution in their home country. While support for refugees is consistent with our values, the federal government must provide additional federal dollars to states which will shoulder much of the financial burden in providing services for these refugees. Many states are already struggling with the financial strain caused by COVID

In his address before Congress last week, President Joe BidenJoe BidenObama: Ensuring democracy 'continues to work effectively' keeps me 'up at night' New Jersey landlords prohibited from asking potential tenants about criminal records Overnight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE urged members of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation. This has been a common refrain for over 30 years and yet time and time again nothing happens in our Congress. Today the need for immigration reform in this country has never been greater. Unfortunately the possibility of legislation has never appeared more unrealistic. 

The Biden administration’s reaction to the recent surge on our southern border has left many Americans doubting the ability of the federal government to successfully solve the immigration stalemate. The administration apparently did not anticipate how public comments from the Biden camp during the 2020 presidential campaign would encourage migrants in poorer sections of Mexico and Central America, many of them children, to flock to our southern border. Surges like the current one place an incredible and unfair burden on state resources.

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Republican members of Congress and certain Republican state officials have publicly condemned the administration’s response to the present border crisis. To be sure some of the criticism is warranted but according to the Biden administration the blame rightly belongs to the previous administration for their failure to cooperate during the presidential transition. Whoever is to blame, the finger pointing has to stop. Rather than gloat about the president's perceived failure, the American public would be better served if Republicans began work with Democrats to find common ground and pass comprehensive immigration legislation. 

Seven years ago, my friend and colleague David Strange and I formally proposed a conservative and compassionate approach to immigration reform. We acknowledged that not all aspects of our immigration system is broken, but that adjustments were absolutely necessary. We suggested then that the foundation of any reform has to be border security. Our government has the right to determine who is in our country and the obligation to secure our borders from those who would harm us. 

I, and others, have never been a proponent of a border wall. It would be more effective and far less expensive in discouraging illegal crossings if we were to take advantage of the natural border terrain, use perimeter fencing and other similar barriers, rely on greater use of technology such as night sensors, drones and motion detectors and employ more border patrol agents. Whatever the method, border security must be the top priority.

But our immigration policy has to recognize certain economic realities. The truth is, immigrant workers are desperately needed in the farming, hospitality and food service industries. Biden estimates there are nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country today. Our government is not able to remove them all at once, and even if it could do so, it would certainly devastate certain industries. Yet we cannot allow undocumented immigrants to continue to live in the shadows in an undocumented status. It is far more humane and better policy to identify those individuals who qualify and put them into some type of temporary legal status. If, for example, a migrant has a criminal record then that individual has to leave America. We should welcome those with a clean record and specific skills useful to our economy. 

Additionally, our government should revamp the visa process to better deal with individuals who come into this country legally on either a student or work visa, but who then remain here in an unlawful status once the visa expires. The federal government should ensure that technology is available to make it easier for employers and school administrators to keep track of those here on a work or student visa.

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We also need to mandate tougher workplace enforcement. Most immigrants come from countries where jobs are scarce; they come to America to work. Some employers often take advantage of their needs in order to hire cheaper labor. Those that do should be fined if they knowingly and repeatedly hire undocumented migrants. Through advancing technology we can and should make it easier and more cost effective for employers to verify the legal status of those who they seek to hire.

There appears to be serious disagreement over whether the United States should ultimately provide a pathway to citizenship to immigrants who come into the country unlawfully, or who overstay their visas. Biden believes we should. I have no disagreement with that, but the federal government should only grant citizenship to those who meet certain qualifications and conditions spelled out in the legislation.  Most undocumented immigrants come to America only to seek a better life for their families, not to become U.S. citizens. Many would be content knowing they will not be deported because they are here in some type of legal status. If, however, lawmakers vote to provide a pathway to citizenship, the law should also require the immigrant to pay a fine and back taxes (thus there can be no claim of amnesty) and to wait for a reasonable period of time to begin the citizenship process. This ensures that others waiting patiently outside the U.S., and who followed the rules, are not disadvantaged but treated fairly. 

As for children brought to the United States by their parents who entered unlawfully, the so called “dreamers,” I support finding a way for them to stay in America under some type of legal status that includes a pathway to citizenship. For many of these younger individuals, America is the only home they have ever known. They should not have to pay for the actions of their parents. 

Former President George W. Bush, recently released a book titled “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants.”  Through this book he said he hoped to humanize the debate on immigration and he called on Congress to “tone down the harsh rhetoric.” I know achieving the right immigration policy is hard. The subject triggers strong viewpoints because it touches upon our national security and economy, as well as our foreign policy and federalism. Discussions over immigration policy also trigger intense emotions because it potentially affects family and the very essence of who we are as a country and as a people. 

The recent comments by Bush are consistent with his efforts in 2007 to encourage Congress to pass legislation, which failed in part because of Republican opposition. In order to make progress, everyone will have to compromise, no one should expect to get everything that they want in the legislation. Rather than continuing to operate under a patchwork network of executive orders, it is time for Congress to do its job. Members were elected to do that which is hard, yet necessary for the American people. If members of this Congress cannot get the job done or are unwilling to do the work, then voters need to consider replacing them with members who will. 

Alberto R. Gonzales is the former U.S. attorney general and counsel to the president in the George W. Bush administration. Presently he is the dean at Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, Tennessee.