The broken American immigration system and the inability or unwillingness of policymakers of any party to fix it is a drag on the nation’s economy and a source of unnecessary anxiety and social tension. Some groups—Latinos especially get stigmatized as illegal immigrants even when their families have been in the country for generations. Native born citizens are nervous about unfamiliar cultures and languages in their communities. Many think their jobs are being taken by immigrants. It’s an issue more complex than many of us realize. Our emphasis here is on [usually] low skilled immigrants who come to the US seeking economic opportunity. Here’s how the Folks on the Hill see the issue:
1. If we bother to have immigration laws we should enforce them and do what we can to prevent people from violating them. Border security is important but has its limits. Some people will always get through. The border is too big. Only small, rich countries (Denmark, Switzerland) can claim true border security. Given the difficulty of stopping illegal border crossings, a smarter strategy would be to focus on the jobs they are most often attracted to and on those who overstay their visas. The laws should be enforced. If we don’t like the laws, let’s change them!
2. Recognize that while illegal immigration is a crime the people who do it are not bad people. They are simply responding to the incentives presented to them. American immigration officials should focus on those who hire illegals, not the powerless poor people trying to survive.
3. Understand that the economies of the US, Mexico and Central America are highly integrated. Therefore strengthening those economies is in the US national interest. From a selfish American perspective, a job in Mexico is better than a job in China!
4. Change the message. Use the power of our massive public and private media apparatus to drive the message home that we welcome LEGAL immigration. Crossing the border illegally is risking your life. Show some corpses in the desert. Show the evil of the coyotes who make their living exploiting poor families.
5. For the message to mean anything we have to improve the process for folks getting legal work visas. Easier said than done but clearly necessary.
Most of the better political solutions are variations of the Path to Citizenship–illegal immigrants can obtain green cards in exchange for a fine. The idea was first proposed by Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush. The dream act also makes sense for those kids brought to the US at an early age who would be foreigners anywhere else. That’s at least a sensible basis for an immigration policy. We can then debate the details.