Twice in the past decade, the Senate has tried to pass immigration reform. In 2007, as secretary of homeland security, I worked with a bipartisan group of senators as they fashioned a comprehensive bill that ultimately died on the floor.
Now there is a tailwind for reform. Substantial security investments since 2006 have led to a steady decline in illegal border crossings. Net inflow across the border is close to zero. Moreover, the immigration stalemate has inflicted a political cost.
The three pillars of immigration reform remain largely what they were in 2007: enforcement, legal immigration and the status of illegal immigrants. What have we as a nation learned that will help ensure we fix this once and for all?
Six years ago, as now, three interest groups were influential in the debate on immigration reform: those troubled that the United States had not achieved control of its borders and immigration flow; business groups unhappy with a cumbersome immigration system that does not satisfy labor markets and imposes complex regulations (including high-tech employers, which were frustrated that foreign graduates with advanced degrees were being forced to leave the United States, and employers in other economic sectors – such as agriculture – that cannot find enough American citizens to fill their labor requirements); and humanitarian groups seeking to prevent the exploitation of undocumented workers and to afford them legal status and a way to citizenship.
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In 2007, each of these groups pursued its own agenda in isolation. Enforcement grew but reform failed. The lesson is that none of these groups can achieve its core interest unless each advocates an approach that will satisfy everyone’s “must-haves” through balanced reform.
Proponents of border security rightly continue to insist that any reform be conditioned on objective and verifiable measures of enforcement success. Without these, the United States would repeat the failure of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which embraced amnesty for undocumented workers but failed to follow through with tough enforcement for future illegal migration. The specter of ongoing cycles of amnesty and illegal migration fueled deep opposition to reform in 2007 and will do so again if not taken seriously. But security advocates must also recognize that without expanded legal immigration to address the needs of the labor market, border security will be harder and more expensive to achieve. Moreover, an approach that defers all relief for undocumented workers until far in the future will unfairly perpetuate an underclass.
Fortunately, security and business advocates should be able to get behind a system that employs modern technology to integrate efficient immigration and employment processes. A secure Social Security card linked to both the visa process and employment verification would cut employment of illegal entrants or those who overstay and would instill confidence that those admitted for seasonal or temporary work will abide by the terms of their visas. Security and business advocates should also support allowing those lawfully admitted to study for engineering and science degrees to convert to work visas and green cards upon graduation.
For the approximately 11 million workers already in the United States illegally, there is also a path to fair treatment that is consistent with security and the rule of law and that does not simply initiate a new migration surge. First, illegal entrants or overstays who are working or studying, and otherwise law-abiding, should be able to apply for renewable visas soon after a balanced bill is enacted. They should undergo background checks, obtain secure identification and satisfy any tax obligations. This would alleviate the anxiety related to their undocumented status without compromising security or fidelity to the law.
But advocates should recognize that the road to earning citizenship from temporary status will – and should – be longer and conditioned upon achieving objective success in border security and immigration control. Those who entered illegally should not be processed for citizenship before others who waited in compliance with the law. Moreover, honoring the rule of law mandates that those who want permanent status should pay a fine for their previous violation.
The balanced reform outlined will require security advocates to accept that illegal migrants will get some near-term benefit; businesses to accept that there will be some regulation through an employment verification system; and immigration advocates to settle for some immediate relief while recognizing that earning citizenship will take time. But without these accommodations, we will continue with a broken system.
Finally, presidential commitment is critical. In 2007, President Bush was deeply involved but near the end of his eight-year term. Today, President Obama has more time and a greater ability to get things done. But as he appeared to recognize in the State of the Union, this will require him to promote the core objectives of each major interest group, going beyond campaign-style events aimed at his base.
In 2007, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., exemplified this much-needed personal engagement. He worked daily with the Bush administration and across the aisle to fight not only for principles he personally endorsed but also to ensure that everyone else who signed on to immigration reform received significant benefits. There is no better model for Obama.