Principles for Immigration Reform

Guidelines for Fixing Our Broken Immigration System

The current immigration system is not working; these five principles can guide the creation of a new strategy that is tough but fair and works for American workers and the economy.

Demonstrators march with an American flag during an immigration reform rally in Dallas, Texas. (AP/Rex C. Curry)
Demonstrators march with an American flag during an immigration reform rally in Dallas, Texas. (AP/Rex C. Curry)

The need for immigration reform in the United States is beyond question. The nation’s broken immigration system undermines our core national values, disserves our economic and security interests, and diminishes our moral standing in the world. Reforming this system is also critical to successfully addressing other key issues such as health care and the economy.

Congress has for years now overseen an explosion of expensive, ineffective enforcement policies that have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars, enriched criminal syndicates, divided families, disrupted communities, and battered local economies rather than confronting our failed policies with common sense solutions grounded in what is best for our nation. In short, Congress has sacrificed our national interest at the altar of a destined-to-fail, get-tough enforcement strategy.

Confronted with this crisis the United States is left with three options: 1) preserve the status quo—an option that no responsible policymaker would advance; 2) drive millions of workers and families out of our communities, which CAP estimates would run over $41 billion annually; or 3) embrace tough but fair and practical solutions.

We at the Center for American Progress believe that the status quo is untenable, mass deportation is contrary to our national interests and values, and the only viable approach is comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform would require immigrants to register and become legal, pay taxes, learn English, and pass criminal background checks.

Five key principles for reform should guide the president and Congress as they begin to reengage this pressing domestic priority. CAP’s principles for responsible immigration reform are grounded in a belief that lasting solutions flow from policies that defend the bedrock American values of opportunity, equality, fairness, compassion, and a commitment to the common good. They are:

Resolve the status of the undocumented

It is morally and economically unacceptable for the wealthiest nation on earth to have 12 million people living and functioning in an underground economy in the United States. Our “shining city upon a hill” is casting a dark shadow over a large class of workers. These workers and their families are interwoven in our communities, yet they are proscribed from becoming full members of our society. Their labor enhances the nation’s competitiveness and enables economic growth, but their lack of legal status exposes them and their U.S. counterparts to manipulation and exploitation.

Effective reform must require those living in the United States illegally to register, pay their full share of taxes, learn English, complete background checks, and earn the privilege of citizenship. The country will in turn benefit from an expanded tax base, a more robust rule of law, a workforce less vulnerable to exploitation, and a level playing field for all workers.

Enhance legal immigration channels and labor mobility

Globalization has made it increasingly more efficient to move capital, goods, and services across national borders. Yet legal channels facilitating movement of labor have not kept pace with this rapid development, even though immigration is an integral part of the American economy. The demands of global competitiveness require increased overall levels of legal immigration. Immigrants serve important roles in the success of the nation’s economy in boardrooms and corn fields, in Silicon Valley and the San Fernando Valley.

Demographic trends show that an aging United States will need more workers across all occupation levels. Employment-based immigration and family-based immigration complement each other and should not be pitted against one another in a zero-sum game. Target levels should be adjusted to acknowledge that immigration is an engine of economic dynamism and to ensure that close families are not separated for years by outdated limitations. The United States must embrace the inevitable shift toward a well-regulated, legal, global labor market in order to retain our economic leadership.

Protect U.S. workers

Comprehensive immigration reform will benefit all U.S. workers. A program that brings undocumented immigrants out of the shadows will improve accountability for all employers. And a clear but rigorous path toward citizenship would diminish U.S. workers’ vulnerability to unscrupulous employers. This creates fair, not exploitative, competition.

Any reforms must also protect American workers by safeguarding their ability to defend their rights, including the rights to change jobs freely and organize without fear, and to earn a fair wage. Millions of American workers are experiencing unemployment or underemployment in today’s economy, and we should strive to provide just wages for all workers and terminate policies that enable employers to participate in a race to the bottom of the wage ladder.

Foster an inclusive American identity

Our country’s identity is shaped by core values of equality, freedom, and opportunity. Immigration and the process of assimilation constantly tests and ultimately strengthens and deepens our commitment to those values. We must be vigilant, however, to ensure that newcomers have access to programs—language and civic education—that facilitate their integration into the nation’s social and cultural fabric. Naturalization, the cornerstone of integration and first step in civic participation for new citizens, must be accessible and encouraged.

Adopt smart enforcement policies and safeguards

The U.S. Border Patrol’s annual budget has more than quintupled since 1993 while the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has tripled to approximately 12 million during that same time period. Militarization of the border has obviously failed as an immigration control strategy.

The federal government has a fundamental responsibility to protect the country, but it must do so by marrying smart, targeted border and worksite enforcement strategies with legal reforms that embrace 21st-century economic and moral imperatives. An increase in legal immigration must be accompanied by efforts to ensure that a revamped immigration system fosters respect for the rule of law, due process, and privacy. A workable system would tolerate neither deliberate unlawful presence nor the violation of an individual’s rights. Immigration reform that is tough but fair will restore order and control at the border, ensure a level playing field for honest businesses, and prevent dishonest businesses from gaining an unfair advantage.

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Angela Maria Kelley

Executive Director, Center for American Progress Action Fund; Senior Vice President, Center for American Progress

Marshall Fitz

Senior Fellow

Vanessa Cárdenas

Vice President, Progress 2050