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Strengthen Immigration Through Commonsense Reforms

More than any other nation in history, the United States has made itself a welcome home for immigrants in search of a better life. It embraces those who come to this country honestly, armed with their work ethic, in search of the promises and opportunities of the American Dream.

The key to the uniquely successful story of American immigration is both its commitment to universal principles of the American Founding and its deliberate and self-confident policy of patriotic assimilation: America welcomes newcomers while insisting that they learn and embrace its civic culture and political institutions, thereby forming and forging a single nation from many peoples. Thus the inscription e pluribus unum on the official seal of the United States: out of many, one.

Over the past several decades, however, immigration policy has become confused, unfocused, and dysfunctional. America lacks a simple system to attract the qualified immigrants who can help our economy. Millions of unlawfully present immigrants belie the core principle of the rule of law and belittle the legal naturalization process, and continued large-scale immigration without effective assimilation threatens social cohesion and America’s civic culture and common identity, especially if immigrants are assimilated into the welfare state rather than into a society of opportunity. It is high time for an immigration policy that serves immigrants and citizens alike.

We must, however, recognize that the popular “easy button” solutions will not improve our immigration system. A “comprehensive” amnesty bill that would grant blanket legal status to those who are here illegally has been tried before and only made matters worse. In 1986, Congress passed a massive amnesty bill, and 20 years later, the number of people here illegally had increased fourfold. History also shows that big bills designed to solve everything wind up creating as many problems as they address. They become loaded with payoffs for special interests and often introduce measures that work at cross purposes.

President Obama has never laid out an alternative path; in four years, he introduced no major legislation to address our immigration problems. When he does discuss solutions, he offers up only old ideas that have failed. At the same time, the President’s policies have been a mixture of often conflicting measures. If anything, they have made the prospects for meaningful reform worse with unilateral actions that undermine trust and confidence that our nation’s leaders can find common ground for sensible solutions.

We deserve better—all of us. Employers deserve better than having to sift through falsified credentials or risk breaking the law. Families in communities burdened by the impacts of illegal immigration deserve better. Those living in the shadows of society deserve better as well. In fact, all who cherish a society that is committed to keeping America both a nation of immigrants and a country that respects its laws deserve better.

Immigration reform can move forward on many fronts at the same time, focusing on some commonsense initiatives that begin to address the practical challenges of our immigration system. The key is to begin by working on the solutions upon which we can all agree rather than insisting on a comprehensive approach that divides us.

Guiding Principles

  • America has been good for immigrants, and immigrants have been good for America. All of those who love liberty and seek opportunity admire our nation's principles and its system of equal justice and economic freedom. Immigrants strengthen our culture, deepen our national patriotism, and expand our general economy. Ours is a nation of immigrants, but it is more accurate to say that it is a nation where immigrants become Americans, sharing the benefits, responsibilities, and attachments of citizenship. A successful immigration policy is possible only through a deliberate and self-confident policy to assimilate immigrants; assure their English proficiency; and educate them about this country's political principles, history, institutions, and civic culture.
  • America's immigration system must be a national strength, not a national burden or strategic vulnerability. America is indeed a nation of immigrants, but no one has a right to immigrate to America. The people of America should determine which immigration policy best serves their interests. We should focus on attracting individuals and families who are seeking political and economic freedom, bringing with them the values and work ethic to climb the ladder of opportunity. Unlike in previous generations, however, a generous welfare, education, and health system with generous eligibility often draws poor and low-skill immigrants into the ranks of the underclass rather than encouraging self-reliance and financial independence.
  • Within a redistributionist state, immigrants without a college education impose a significant and unavoidable fiscal burden on taxpayers and become part of a dependent or fiscal recipient class. Policymakers must ensure that the interaction of social services and immigration policy does not expand the welfare state and impose significant costs on American society. America also has, like every country in the world, the right to secure its borders and ports of entry and thereby control the goods and persons coming into its territory. Secure borders, especially in a time of terrorist threat, are crucial to American national security.
  • Existing laws must be enforced. The rule of law requires the consistent enforcement of the law, and immigration is no exception. Failure to enforce immigration laws disadvantages those who obey the law and go through the regulatory and administrative requirements to enter the country legally. Condoning or encouraging illegal entry—especially granting a blanket amnesty for those who break immigration laws—causes a general disrespect for the law and encourages further illegal conduct.
  • Congress, not the President, must take the lead on immigration reform. The Constitution entrusts to Congress the power to "establish an uniform rule of naturalization." While the President has an important role to play in enforcing existing immigration laws, Congress must develop legislative solutions to fix our immigration system. The Obama Administration abused its "prosecutorial discretion" when it stopped enforcing parts of the immigration laws and implemented by regulation what several previous Congresses have chosen not to legislate. The Administration should defer to Congress to determine long-term solutions that are appropriately tailored and clearly targeted toward the cases to be addressed. Likewise, welfare, education, and social policies should be structured to develop the human capital provided by immigration, not to dump individuals into a welfare society with little upward mobility.
  • Illegal immigrants are not a monolithic bloc. When it comes to those who are currently in the country illegally, it is important to recognize that they do not constitute a single monolithic group and that there is not one comprehensive policy to deal with them all at once. Gang members and those that commit additional crimes while illegally in the United States should be deported immediately. Those that are here illegally for employment also can be incentivized through the marketplace by making it easier for employers to know whether they are hiring legal residents and creating more legal options to work temporarily in the United States. A smaller portion of these individuals will present hard cases that will need to be addressed prudently by appropriate legislation as those issues arise.

The Way Forward

  • Reform the immigration process to attract immigrants. The process by which individuals enter the country legally must be fair, orderly, and efficient, welcoming those who abide by immigration laws and denying entry and advantages to those who violate the law. The integrity of this process is important to protecting and encouraging a meaningful immigration, naturalization, and citizenship process.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) needs to do a better job of providing the immigration services that the nation needs. Reforms should include an entirely new funding model, a comprehensive overhaul of the agency's service support enterprise, and better integration of USCIS programs with immigration enforcement and border control efforts. USCIS and the Department of State need to streamline existing visa programs, such as those for temporary or seasonal agricultural workers, and Congress should review visa programs to emphasize and ease entry for skilled workers and those who are educated in the United States.
  • Make it easier to work legally and temporarily in the United States.Policymakers should consider options for those who want to come to the United States for employment, not as a solution to the existing illegal population but as a flexible program to provide employment as the market demands. A targeted and well-constructed temporary-worker program that allows for a market-driven source of labor provided by a rotating temporary workforce would diminish the incentives for illegal immigration by providing an additional option for legal entry.
  • Make practical immigration solutions the priority. The way forward is not to repeat the failures of the past but to pursue an incremental strategy of real reforms. The solution to the challenges of immigration reform does not necessitate—and will not result from—"comprehensive" legislation or "grand bargains" that compromise on principle and security. The challenge is to answer the big questions first so that the others fall into place or are susceptible to later resolution. Indeed, working to implement existing laws and with a handful of new initiatives, Congress and the Administration could achieve serious reform in a reasonable amount of time. Over time, the disincentives and the incentives of law enforcement and the market will alter the benefits of illegal immigration and, along with pro–legal immigration policies, decrease illegal immigration and replace it with the renewed and vibrant legal immigration system that Americans want.
  • Enforce existing laws. There are already numerous laws that, if enforced in a targeted manner, would discourage illegal immigration. One way is to target those who hire illegal immigrants through interior enforcement measures, such as notifying employers when they have hired workers whose personal information did not match Social Security records, conducting random workplace inspections and checks of I-9 forms, and ensuring that E-Verify programs are used and properly implemented. The policies of the Obama Administration have undermined efforts to deter illegal immigration, essentially sending the message that once here, it is easy to find employment and stay indefinitely. To ensure a comprehensive approach to illegal immigration, the Administration must commit to enforcing and encourage the states to enforce existing immigration laws.
  • Maintain and increase efforts to enhance border security. The federal government should define a variety of solutions capable of responding to the multiple threats faced at the border, ranging from illicit drugs to illegal migration. These should include secure fencing where appropriate and investments in technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cameras/sensors that would give the Border Patrol enhanced monitoring and detection capabilities. Cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement through Border Enforcement Security Task Forces and related Merida Initiative programs is essential. Congress and the Administration should also ensure that the U.S. Coast Guard has adequate vessels and personnel to fulfill its missions and intercept would-be illegal immigrants at sea.
  • Work with the states. State and local governments can and should play a significant role in immigration policy, both through their own laws and law enforcement and by working with the federal government. The federal government should work with state governments to promote individual state policies to address common concerns. A good place to start is to revitalize and expand the successful 287(g) program, which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to train state and local police to implement and enforce federal immigration laws. States should also be encouraged to require proof of citizenship to register to vote, obtain driver's licenses and motor vehicle tags, and professional licenses.