Highlight on Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Comprehensive reform would protect our security, economy, and workers’ wages while respecting our traditional embrace of immigrants.

Comprehensive immigration reform would protect our security, allow our economy to grow, protect the wages of U.S. workers, honor our value of rewarding hard work, restore the rule of law, and respect America’s traditional embrace of immigrants.

Yet the 109th Congress chose instead to pass restrictionist enforcement-only legislation despite support for more comprehensive reform from 76 percent of Americans including President Bush.

President Bush told The Washington Post yesterday in an Oval Office interview that he hopes the incoming Congress will join him on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would establish a guest-worker program and provide a path to citizenship for many currently undocumented immigrants.

Current immigration policies are clearly not working. The number of U.S. Border Patrol agents was tripled between 1990 and 2005, and funding for the program was increased tenfold. Yet the undocumented population in the United States doubled in size, the death rate of border crossings tripled, and the per-apprehension cost increased to $1700 in 2002 from only $300 in 1992.

Effective immigration reform must consider what is best for our national security, workers and the economy, and national integrity. A progressive three-tiered approach marries enforcement, earned legalization, and worker protections.

Enforcement in Context —At the Border and In the Workplace

Security along the U.S-Mexico border is only one part of the national security equation. National security experts surveyed in a recent Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine report agreed that ports are a much greater security risk. Seventy percent of experts said improving port and cargo security should be a top border security priority, and only six percent said “building a fence between the United States and Mexico.” To secure the border, we should:

  • Crack down on border security and corporate abettors. Tougher penalties and tougher enforcement must be deployed against employers who routinely and knowingly hire undocumented workers. As long as they are willing to hire undocumented workers, people will find a way to come to the U.S. illegally.
  • Protect our security; bring the undocumented out of the shadows. Keeping the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the shadows poses a potential threat to our security. We do not know who is here or who is trying to enter the country. Fixing the system to provide a path to legal entry, complete with background checks, as part of the path to citizenship will enable law enforcement to focus on terrorists and criminals.
  • Respect the rule of law. Enforcement provisions must be tough but fair. They must respect the rule of law, honor our tradition of due process, and not criminalize immigrants and those who provide them humanitarian assistance.

Earned Legalization—Not Amnesty

Analysis from the Center for American Progress shows that Americans favor a tough, but not punitive approach to immigration enforcement, combined with fairly generous views on immigration reform to deal with the undocumented immigrants who are already here, including a path toward citizenship. To ensure earned legalization of immigrants, we should:

  • Honor hard work and our immigrant tradition. Undocumented individuals who are willing to apply for a multi-year temporary status, have a job, pay taxes, obey the law, learn English, and pay a significant penalty for having come here illegally, should be put on the path to citizenship. This is a long and rigorous but fair process which honors the American value of rewarding hard work and our tradition as a dynamic country of immigrants.
  • Allow no amnesty, no cutting in line. Under comprehensive reform, none of the 12 million undocumented would become U.S. citizens overnight. The path to earned legalization and then citizenship should be and is a long one, taking at least 11 years to complete.

Protecting All Workers

Approximately 7.2 million undocumented immigrants currently work in the United States, but they are concentrated in a number of sectors in the workforce. And because a massive skill and education gap exists between undocumented workers and unemployed U.S. citizens, undocumented workers do not displace American jobs as many fear. To protect undocumented immigrants, and all U.S. workers, we should:

  • Create a level playing field. As long as employers are able to exploit any workers, all workers are in jeopardy. We need to ensure that every worker is paid a fair wage, can protect their rights, and organize without fear.
  • Make worker visas work. Comprehensive reform must include a worker visa program that protects the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers and enforces both the program’s rules and existing labor laws meaningfully.
  • Bring much-needed order to the process. The program must put an end to the chaotic and often deadly flow of undocumented immigrants across the border and bring order to the future flow of immigrants.

Comprehensive immigration reform must include protections for our national security, economy, and belief in the common good in order to effectively address the problem. Sixty-eight percent of Americans believe that undocumented immigration is a very serious problem; it is time for us to do something about it.

The Center for American Progress Action Fund released a memo in November urging the 110th Congress to take steps to pass comprehensive immigration reform. View the full agenda here:

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