A consensus has been building about the need to reform and modernize our immigration system. While I am optimistic that Republicans, including “tea party” members, will support reform, it must be done right. We must create a system for the 21st century and beyond, one that honors the rule of law, provides a fair path for those seeking to come to the United States and fixes our broken borders.
We must not fall prey to the mistakes made by earlier immigration reform efforts. An estimated 11 million or more undocumented people live in our country. Most Americans understand their quest for freedom, but they are here illegally. Successful reform will not reward them, and it must prevent another wave of illegal immigrants who will demand that we legalize their status 10 or 20 years from now.
I am in a unique position to understand the problem. I practiced immigration law for 15 years and experienced the difficulty of working within the current patchwork of immigration laws. As a state legislator and now a member of Congress, I have been frustrated with a bureaucracy that creates inefficiency in the labor market, lacks the proper tools to protect us from threats at the border and does nothing to discourage illegal immigration.
The starting place -- the trigger for reforming and modernizing our immigration system -- must be securing our borders and effectively enforcing our immigration laws before any legal status is granted to those here illegally.
Border agencies and local authorities must be given the tools they need to effectively perform their duties. The Obama administration must allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to enforce existing laws and apprehend any undocumented person they encounter, not just those who have committed violent crimes. In addition, the Border Patrol must have access to all border areas, including federally managed scenic lands where motor vehicle use is restricted. The border fences, both virtual and physical, must be completed.
However, fences alone will not prevent illegal immigration. Perhaps 35% to 40% of the illegal population entered the U.S. legally and simply never left. That is why border enforcement must be coupled with strict interior enforcement. We must create an effective entry and exit system that can track visa overstays and use a verification system, like E-Verify, to ensure that employers hire only legally authorized workers.
We must also create a robust guest worker program to match willing workers with employers according to flexible free-market forces. In 2006 and 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama and other Democrats sided with the labor unions in an effort to water down such legislation. Reform will not go forward if the Democrats again resist the need to create a guest worker program.
At the same time, we must increase the number of visas and green cards available for high-skilled workers. We educate future business leaders and innovators from around the world at U.S. colleges and universities, and then force many who want to stay here to leave after graduation. Instead of creating jobs in the U.S., they return home or immigrate to other countries, where they become our competitors.
Finally, after the border is secure and our guest worker and visa programs are modernized, the legislation must address what to do with the people who are here illegally. I know some citizens want to round them all up, but this is not realistic. Instead, we can create an appropriate program to normalize their status.
To qualify for such a program, the undocumented must come out of the shadows, register and undergo thorough background checks. They must pay all taxes owed, and pay a fine. They must know English and remain employed and not become a financial burden to American taxpayers. Those who have committed serious crimes or who do not willingly come forward will not be eligible for the program.
The legislation should not provide a special pathway to citizenship for the millions who have willfully violated our immigration laws. Those who entered the U.S. as children, through no fault of their own, will be allowed to have a pathway to citizenship. But those who entered illegally as adults will only be allowed to participate in the new and improved guest worker and visa programs.
I am not advocating a two-tiered immigration system or second-class status -- those who can become citizens and those who can never become citizens. Anyone who wants to become a naturalized citizen of the United States is welcome to apply. But Congress must not make it any easier for those who entered our country illegally to obtain citizenship. Those who qualify for the new guest worker and visa programs and desire citizenship would be placed at the end of the line behind others immigrating legally. It would be a travesty to treat those who violated our laws better than those who have patiently waited their turn to come to the United States the right way.
America’s freedoms and opportunities draw people from every nation. Though we are under no obligation to accept everyone seeking to make a future for themselves here, to those who wish to come legally, we can provide a fair path. To those who are here illegally, we can offer a fair chance to redeem themselves. And to the American people we can offer a modern immigration system that will keep the United States strong, safe and free.