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Comprehensive Immigration Reform: It's Time To Walk The Walk

by Frank Sharry

On Wednesday, November 12th Bush Administration Cabinet secretaries met with Mexican counterparts in Washington, D.C. to discuss issues of mutual concern, and tops on the list was the issue of comprehensive migration reform. No breakthrough was expected, and that is a shame. It is high time for the key actors—the Bush Administration, the Fox Administration, and the U.S. Congress—to move beyond vague assurances that migration is “still on the table,” and take concrete steps to solve our pressing migration and border issues.

The Steps to be Taken Now

The following are all concrete, achievable steps that could and should be taken in the coming weeks and year by the Bush Administration, the Fox Administration, and the U.S. Congress. Each step would represent substantive progress in its own right. Together, they would put the U.S. on the path to regulating immigration effectively and securing our borders intelligently.

  1. Restart serious U.S.-Mexico negotiations to address migration management, border security, and how best to eventually reduce migration pressures, with a time frame for the delivery of specific recommendations to both Presidents.

  2. Enact AgJobs, the bipartisan bill that will bring the migration of farm workers from Mexico and elsewhere under the rule of law by providing earned legalization for some 500,000 workers already here and providing a wider legal channel for farm workers needed in the future.

  3. Enact the DREAM Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow U.S.-raised children of undocumented immigrants to attend college, pay the “in-state resident” tuition rates, and get on a path to citizenship so they can work, contribute to their adopted country, and pursue the American Dream.

  4. Stop the CLEAR Act, a bill that would turn local and state police into immigration agents, strike a direct blow at the efforts of police to win the trust and confidence of the communities they serve, and undermine the civil rights and civil liberties of hardworking, taxpaying immigrants.

The Status Quo is Broken

The measures put into place over the past 15 years—with the vocal support from the anti-immigrant chorus in the U.S.—have clearly failed. Employer sanctions, increased border patrols, streamlined deportations, workplace raids, and reduced access to basic public services were all supposed to curtail unauthorized migration from Mexico and Central America. Instead, the biggest crackdown on unauthorized migration in recent history coincided with the biggest increase in history of the size of the undocumented immigrant population. Proposals to do more of the same, or to round up and deport millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. are unworkable and un-American.

It has become painfully clear that antiquated U.S. immigration laws and enforcement strategies are no match for the 21st century, and indeed, create unintended consequences: millions of workers in the shadows and vulnerable to exploitation; decent employers undercut by unscrupulous competitors; a ballooning unauthorized immigrant population that relies on false documents to get jobs and get by; a $10 billion a year human trafficking industry increasingly controlled by crime syndicates; and 2,000 thousand deaths at the border over the past five years.

The Paradigm for the Debate is Shifting

Thanks in no small measure to the discussions between Presidents Bush and Fox before 9/11, there has been a paradigm shift in how best to address the broken status quo. Instead of a naïve and unsuccessful drive to curtail or stop illegal immigration unilaterally, the challenge as it is now becoming understood is to work with our neighbors to manage our borders securely and efficiently, regulate migration realistically and effectively so that our laws are enforceable, and over time reduce the push pressures that drive Mexicans and others to migrate to the United States.

This will be impossible to achieve unless the U.S. government tries something new: bring U.S. immigration laws into line with U.S. economic realities. Even with the current economic slowdown, the long term demographic and economic trends are unmistakable: the home-grown workforce of Americans is inexorably declining. Undocumented immigrant workers have become an essential safety valve for a labor market projecting a deficit of workers for decades to come. The problem, then, is not bad people violating good laws, but good people frustrated by bad laws.

From Talking the Talk to Walking the Walk

The time has come to move beyond pabulum and platitudes and get about the business of building towards long term comprehensive reform:

  • Restart U.S. – Mexico migration negotiations

    The Bush and Fox Administrations should either activate the bilateral working group (comprised of the heads of State, Homeland Security, and Labor Departments for the U.S. and their Mexican counterparts) or both Presidents should appoint special negotiators to get serious about addressing the related challenges of migration management, border security, and eventual reduction of migration pressures. The negotiators should be given a time frame and a clear mandate to address the specific ways to combine the essential components of a comprehensive approach. These components are:

    • Earned legalization: Create legal channels for undocumented immigrants and their families already established in the U.S. so they come forward, obtain work permits, and get on a path to permanent residence and citizenship;
    • More worker and family visas: Develop “break-the-mold” temporary worker programs to widen legal channels for the future flow of needed workers and reduce backlogs for close family members waiting to be reunited, all within realistic and enforceable limits;
    • Smart enforcement: U.S. and Mexican authorities should fully implement binational and multi-lateral “smart borders” strategies in which sending, transit, and receiving nations share intelligence and cooperate on screening and inspections in order to deter the dangerous, admit the desirable, and better regulate the flow of people and goods, and work together to target bad actors such as criminal smugglers and unscrupulous employers.
    • Address root causes: Get serious about cooperating with Mexico and other sending countries not only on security and enforcement concerns, but also on trade, aid, and remittance-related initiatives so that over time migration pressures from sending regions might be reduced.

    In combination, these elements are increasingly viewed as the best hope for making migration safe, orderly, and over time, rare, instead of deadly, chaotic, and inevitable.

    As the negotiating process moves forward, the following concrete steps should be taken by the U.S. Congress, with the support of the Bush Administration:

  • Enact AgJobs

    AgJobs is legislation crafted as a compromise between agricultural business interests and farm labor unions and has picked up support from more than a third of the Senate and key Senate and House leaders in both parties. It would create a path towards earned-legalization for undocumented workers in the agricultural sector while streamlining existing temporary worker programs so that employers can more easily address labor shortages.

  • Enact the DREAM Act

    The DREAM Act, which passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee recently with a bipartisan majority of 16-3, would provide a path to conditional legal residency and eventual citizenship for resident undocumented immigrant students, while removing federal barriers to states determining their own policies on tuition charged to undocumented students in higher education. The parallel Student Adjustment Act in the House of Representatives also enjoys wide and bipartisan support.

  • Stop the CLEAR Act

    The CLEAR Act would withhold federal law enforcement funds from state and local police forces unless they enforce federal civil immigration laws in addition to their criminal law enforcement duties. Sponsored by immigration-restriction advocates, it faces a hailstorm of opposition from state and local police who see it as a poorly-timed, unfunded federal mandate detrimental to police relations with immigrant communities and counterproductive to local community policing strategies.

  • Which Way from Here?

    The American people want to know who is in the U.S., who is coming to the U.S., and that the federal government is minding the store. Our current strategies are failing to do so. The time has come for leadership from the Bush Administration and Congressional leaders from both parties to take concrete steps now on our way to addressing the regional migration and border security challenges in a comprehensive fashion.

    About The Author

    Frank Sharry is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum. The Forum, based in Washington D.C., is one of the nation's premier immigration policy organizations, and has a membership of over 200 organizations nationwide. The Forum's mission is to embrace and uphold America's tradition as a nation of immigrants. Since becoming the Forum's Executive Director in 1990, Mr. Sharry has emerged as a leading spokesperson for pro-immigrant policies in the United States. He frequently appears in print and on television, ranging from the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and The Washington Post to debates on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the McLaughlin Group, and CNN's Crossfire.

    The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.