Fixing immigration

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. McLarty III are co-chairmen and Edward Alden is director of a Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy.

Our immigration system has been broken for too long, and the costs of that failure are growing. Getting immigration policy right is fundamental to our national interests -- our economic vitality, our diplomacy and our national security.

In the report of the bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy released last week, we lay out what is at stake for the United States. President Obama has made it clear that reform is one of his top priorities, and that is an encouraging and welcome signal.

Immigration has long been America’s secret weapon. The United States has attracted an inordinate share of talented and hardworking immigrants, who are enticed here by the world’s best universities, the most innovative companies, a vibrant labor market and a welcoming culture. Many leaders in allied nations were educated in the United States, a diplomatic asset that no other country can match. And the contributions of immigrants -- 40% of the science and engineering PhDs in the U.S. are foreign-born, for example -- have helped maintain the scientific and technological leadership that is the foundation of our national security.


But the United States has been making life much tougher for many immigrants. Long processing delays and arbitrary quota backlogs keep out many would-be immigrants, or leave them in an uncertain temporary status for years. Background and other security checks are taking far too long in many cases. Other countries are taking advantage of these mistakes, competing for immigrants by opening their universities to foreign students and providing a faster track to permanent residency and citizenship.

The persistent problem of illegal immigration has also soured many Americans on the benefits of an open system. The presence of nearly 12 million illegal immigrants has diminished respect for the law, weakened labor rights, strained our relations with Mexico and other nations and unfairly burdened public education and social services in many states.

In a post-9/11 world in which the U.S. must be able to thwart terrorist plots by extremists attempting to come here from abroad, illegal migration also creates an unacceptable security risk. Illegal immigration reflects both the inadequacies in our enforcement regime and the failure to provide enough legal channels to meet, under normal economic circumstances, the demands of the U.S. labor market.

Congress and the Obama administration should move ahead on three fronts: reform the legal immigration system so that it responds more adroitly to labor market needs and enhances U.S. competitiveness; restore the integrity of immigration laws through more effective enforcement, especially at the workplace; and offer a fair and orderly way to allow many of those currently living here illegally to earn the right to remain legally.

There are two objections to pushing ahead with such measures now. First, with a deep recession and unemployment nearing 10%, encouraging more immigration seems to make little sense at the moment. That is why the U.S. needs a more flexible system that is responsive to changes in the economy. Family reunification remains a basic and valuable goal, but employment-based immigration and temporary-worker programs should be allowed to fluctuate with economic cycles, rather than being subject to rigid quotas. That means numbers should go up when the economy grows but fall during recessions.

Second, some argue that this formula repeats the mistake of the 1986 reform law, which did nothing to stop illegal immigration. But the circumstances now are very different. In 1990, the U.S. had fewer than 3,000 Border Patrol agents. Today, there are almost 20,000 agents, a near doubling in the last four years alone. The Department of Homeland Security is also investing heavily in surveillance and other technologies to increase control over the borders.


Electronic verification -- which did not exist in the 1990s -- will soon allow for quick and accurate verification that an employee is authorized to work here. Our task force recommends that employers who use these systems faithfully be rewarded, while companies that persist in hiring illegal immigrants should face tougher sanctions, including criminal penalties and the possibility of civil actions. This will substantially reduce the ability of illegal immigrants to find work in the United States.

In part because of such measures, illegal immigration to the U.S. has fallen to its lowest levels since the mid-1970s. When the economy recovers, those numbers are likely to rise. But Congress and the administration have an opportunity now to develop and put in place an immigration strategy for the recovery by offering new legal paths for immigration and temporary work, along with tough enforcement of the law.

We urge Congress not to keep reprising the stale debates over enforcement-first versus comprehensive reform. U.S. national interests will not be served unless both are priorities. Our group, which includes Democrats and Republicans, shows that a consensus is possible. It’s time to get on with the job.