With the revelations about the Trump Administration policy of separating children of illegal immigrants from their parents, federal immigration policy is back in the headlines. After the failure of the DACA deal earlier this year, the controversy gives Congress another chance to finally fix our broken immigration system.
The first step in the immigration fix is to realize that it requires a bipartisan compromise. Some of my conservative friends have fought immigration reform for years on the grounds that border security should come first. This stance has resulted in the status quo on the border being preserved for a decade. Republicans need to realize that unless they get enough Senate votes to end a filibuster, a standalone border security bill is never going to pass.
There is no indication that the GOP is going to get a supermajority any time soon. With prospects in the midterm elections looking gloomy, it will be a struggle for Republicans to maintain control of the House, let alone seize a filibuster-proof lock on the Senate.
If the border is going to be secured, it must be as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Unfortunately, President Trump has poisoned the well with his demands for a “big beautiful wall” and Democrats have become so crazed in their anti-Trump stance that they were unable to accept a generous compromise on DACA in February.
In the wake of that failure and with job creation booming, immigration policy should be ripe for reform. Public opinion has favored reform for years. Democrats apparently believed that any failure to pass a bill would be blamed on Republicans, but their resistance backfired as DACA protesters rallied against the DNC. Further foot-dragging could erode their base.
For their part, Republicans usually favor changing laws that don’t work, but immigration law has become a sacred cow. Taking a closer look at current law shows that it is unworkable. The border is not sealed and penalties for illegal immigration amount to a slap on the wrist. To make matters worse, legal immigration is so restrictive and difficult that it encourages people to break the law and cross illegally or overstay visas.
The status quo also risks alienating the traditional Republican support from businesses. Under President Trump, temporary work visas have been reduced. I described last month how the shortage of visas is wreaking havoc in the Maryland crab processing industry and with other employers around the country who depend on immigrant workers. Recent reports that the US now has more job openings than workers to fill them underscore the need for more legal immigration. Conservatives should realize the effect of the Law of Unintended Consequences on shutting off the flow of immigrant labor.
Some conservatives argue that employers should simply pay higher wages to attract American workers. This is akin to the liberal argument that employers should simply pay more to provide health insurance benefits for their workers. Both arguments ignore the economic reality that businesses must be profitable to exist. If companies pay higher labor costs, they must raise prices. If prices are too high, consumers stop buying their product. Companies can either go out of business because they have no workers or because they have no customers.
The basic idea of an immigration compromise is a simple one. First, tie other reforms to border security with established triggers. Other permanent reforms do not go into effect unless the border is secure.
Other aspects of the compromise would include a pathway to legalization (not necessarily citizenship) for current illegals. It is unrealistic to expect the deportation of the millions of illegals currently in the US, especially considering that doing so would leave many of their children, American citizens, without parents to provide for them and entitle them to benefits from an already-strained welfare system. Mass deportations would require an expensive expansion of the police state that should alarm conservatives and libertarians. Let’s acknowledge that many illegals are integrated into society and are contributing to the economy.
That doesn’t mean that there should be an amnesty for illegal immigrants. As immigration hawks point out, they did break the law and should be punished. Punishment does not have to involve deportation however. Punishment could also be in the form of delayed or denied citizenship, paying fines and back taxes, community service, probation and background checks.
To help businesses and farmers, a guest worker program should be implemented. Many American jobs, like those of Maryland’s crab fishermen, depend on a symbiotic relationship with immigrant labor. It is estimated that each visa job creates 2.5 jobs for American citizens. American crops should not be rotting in the fields because there is no one to pick them.
Priorities for immigrants should be changed to accept more immigrants who can contribute to the American economy. Our current system allows foreign students to be trained at American universities, but then denies them the ability to work for American companies. Instead, American-educated engineers and scientists are sent abroad to work for companies that compete against us. Immigrants with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math should be at the top of the list to immigrate.
In return, illegal immigration should be made a felony with a punishment severe enough to deter illegally being in the US. A better system of tracking visitors who come to the US on visas is needed to prevent overstays. The carrot-and-stick approach would make immigration easier for legitimate workers while punishing illegal immigrants more severely.
Aside from the boost to the economy, another big advantage to solving the problem of illegal migrant workers would be in a more efficient border security system. If there is a viable path for workers to enter the country, law enforcement can focus on the smugglers, violent criminals and terrorists who would still be using the back door. There would be fewer sheep to hide the wolves.
There is broad agreement from both sides on most of these details. The difficulty in reforming our broken immigration system is in having the will to buck the extremists on both sides who prefer to keep the current broken system rather than compromise to solve the problem.
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