ON THURSDAY, President Bush put his signature on a measure authorizing a new fence along 700 miles of the 1,952-mile-long border between the United States and Mexico. Funds for the fence may never be provided, and the fence may never get built. Regardless of its future, the fence legislation alone is no substitute for the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that California and the nation need.
The United States has long been strengthened by policies that have brought immigrants here from every corner of the world. And yet every period of high immigration also has been shadowed with fear, ignorance, hatred and racism. As we move forward with immigration reform, we must adhere to what makes our country great — freedom, opportunity and equality — and resist pandering to the lowest common denominators of divisiveness, stereotypes and ignorance.
Comprehensive reform starts with full funding for the strong border security provisions originally provided in the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act in response to the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. The act calls for at least 2,000 new, permanent border agents a year and 8,000 new detention beds a year for five years. Investments in border personnel and surveillance technology are essential for protecting national security and regulating immigration, but the federal government has funded only a fraction of these requirements.
Border control, by itself, is not a solution. For one thing, no border in a country as large as the United States can be made perfectly secure. More important, an estimated 40% of the 12 million undocumented immigrants now here entered the country legally and then overstayed their visas. Border fences and other border control measures can’t deal with that part of the problem — and will likely make it worse.
Immigration policy must deal realistically with the major engine of illegal immigration: the economy’s demand for immigrant labor. The federal government must enact rational and reasonable guest-worker programs that match immigrant workers with the nation’s workforce needs. We need to end the shadow economy in which undocumented workers toil without regulation and without the protection of law.
We also ought to offer undocumented immigrants who are working hard and supporting our economy a path toward citizenship, as long as they are willing to be accountable, submit to a background check, pay back taxes, learn English and study American civics. They then should be allowed to get in line behind the backlog of people attempting to gain citizenship.
Finally, immigration reform must enable states to hold the federal government accountable for managing our nation’s immigration. When the failures of the federal government — be it securing the borders or failing to limit illegal employment — result in increased burdens on state and local governments, then the federal government must be required to compensate state and local governments for their increased costs.
I come from a family of immigrants. My mother, who is of Greek descent but immigrated from Egypt, became a U.S. citizen when I was 10. My grandparents on my father’s side came to this country from Greece at the turn of the last century. They worked hard and sent my father to college, and both of their American-born sons fought in World War II.
My grandparents never spoke much English, and yet they were great Americans. They faced the same anti-immigrant sentiment that we see too much of today: hate, ignorance and racism. Yet my grandparents, and millions like them, persevered and became a source of national strength and vitality.
The immigrants in this country today also can be a source of strength, and, guided by comprehensive reforms and orderly policies, immigration will continue to renew the United States and California. But it will take a lot more than a half-promise for a partial fence.