Preserving the Chance of Reform

Dan Restrepo explains why comprehensive immigration solutions are vital to bring order to a malfunctioning system.

Comprehensive immigration reform returns to center stage in the Senate this week, where the same group of hardcore restrictionists that temporarily succeeded in derailing efforts to proceed with much-needed reform earlier this month will be there waiting for it.

The dysfunction of our current immigration system demands that we move forward to adopt an immigration system that enhances our economic and national security, respects our values as a country of immigrants, and restores the rule of law. The magnitude of the challenge means that perfect solutions are illusory. Yet the importance of defining our place in the world and in the hemisphere means that partial approaches are not an option.

Partial approaches in the past have been tried and failed. The last major immigration reform in 1986 opened doors to the undocumented immigrants in our midst. It included promises to enforce workplace laws moving forward, yet contained no reasonable mechanism for regulating the flow of future immigrants. Enforcement efforts therefore faltered and were overwhelmed without a plan for handling the inevitable movement of labor across our borders and through our ports of entry.

During the past decade and a half, we have attempted to enforce our way to a functional immigration system with nothing more to show for it than a legacy of failure. From 1990 to 2005, we tripled the size of the Border Patrol, and between 1986 and 2002 we increased its funding tenfold. Yet the size of the undocumented population in the United States more than doubled since 1990. And the per apprehension cost of detaining those attempting to enter the United States illegally has ballooned to $1,700 in 2002 from $300 in 1992.

The most obvious legacy of the past 20 years is that approaches that focus on only one means of attempting to control immigration are doomed to fail. It was a bipartisan understanding of this failure that prompted the search for a comprehensive solution. It is imperative that the Senate not loose sight of the fact that to succeed reform must be multifaceted and comprehensive as it returns to consider immigration reform legislation this week.

Too great an emphasis on enforcement uber alles will doom this reform effort in the same way that the past 15 years have yielded little more than frustration. A final framework that fails to create a workable and equitable mechanism to regulate the future flow of migrants into the country will leave U.S. Border Patrol agents in the same unenviable position in which they find themselves today—attempting to regulate U.S. labor markets with barriers, SUVs, and handcuffs. An approach that erects unreasonable and mean-spirited barriers along a tough but fair path to earned legalization would mark our country turning its back on our traditional values in a way that does nothing to make us more secure, economically or otherwise.

There should be no doubt that the Senate compromise legislation as it currently stands, and as it is likely to be modified this week, leaves much to be desired and would be deeply troubling if it were the final word on immigration reform coming from the 110th Congress. It is, however, not the flawed last word on reform. Rather, it is the essential first step away from an unacceptable status quo. If the Senate succeeds in moving forward, debate will turn to the House of Representatives and ultimately to a conference committee if legislation is passed through the House.

In short, if the Senate succeeds in passing legislation, there will be ample opportunity to bolster those aspects of the reform proposal that would enhance our physical and economic security, respect our tradition of being a country of immigrants, and restore the rule of law.

If instead the restrictionists prevail in the Senate, there will be no such opportunity. We will be left with an immigration system that mindlessly spends resources on border enforcement hoping against experience that enforcement-only will stem the tide of unauthorized immigration. We will be left with a system that allows nearly 500,000 people to enter the country each and every year in a completely unregulated fashion. We will be left with a system that hampers the ability of the U.S. economy to attract and retain the degree of high-skill talent that helps makes us competitive in a rapidly evolving global economy. We will be left with a system that has kept family members separated for decades waiting through interminable bureaucracy.

We will be left with this dysfunctional system because restrictionist opponents of reform have no realistic alternative plan to deal with the immigration challenges facing our country. Their calls for more enforcement are empty ones. Mass deportation is not an option, neither is resort to a policy of making the lives of immigrants so miserable that they will choose to return to the despair from which they fled when they came to our country.

The Senate faces a decision between preserving the chance of reforming our broken immigration system in sensible and effective ways and preserving the status quo. Our economy, security, and tradition as a country of immigrants will be best served if they pursue the path of progress.

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Dan Restrepo

Senior Fellow