One of the easiest problem areas to resolve is our failed immigration system.
In fact, had the politicians really wanted to fix this system, they would have done it decades ago.
The problem is that they don’t want to. Why? Because some powerful Republicans continue to want the cheap labor; and some powerful Democrats want large numbers of people to continue to enter the country, because eventually they will vote for Democrats.
But this situation has resulted in severe and unnecessary harm being inflicted upon millions of people.
I never get upset at people who come here illegally because they are only doing what our ancestors did: They have come here — often at significant peril and expense — to work hard and thus have a better life for themselves and their children. Furthermore, I try never to use the term “illegal immigrant,” because people are never illegal. So, although imperfect, I find the term “undocumented workers” to be more appropriate.
But now there does seem to be a change in the political winds, such that politicians are beginning to talk seriously about fixing this broken and heartless system. And it’s about time.
How can it be fixed? In three steps.
First, our government should issue work permits to anyone who wants them. The process will simply require the payment of an appropriate administrative fee and a background check for criminal, disease and mental health problems. In addition, if the applicants can show that they can provide financially for their family members, they can bring them too. But no one here under this system will qualify for things like welfare, non-emergency medical care, etc.
Second, everyone who is issued a work permit, as well as their family members, will be furnished an identification card that cannot be counterfeited. Technology now easily makes this possible through fingerprints or the iris of one’s eyes.
Third, any company or person that hires anyone that is not a citizen or holder of a valid green card or work permit will be subject to prosecution. Today’s system of identification is so filled with holes and fraud that it is inappropriate to punish employers for non-compliance.
There will be a phase-in period, maybe a year, for everyone to adjust to and comply with this new system. But thereafter, anyone present in our country illegally will face permanent banishment.
Many good things will flow from this new approach. Workers and their families will be able to cross our borders in both directions without danger or having to pay smugglers for their services.
The workers will also be held to pay their taxes, and, since they are here legally, be able to apply for and receive driver’s licenses and comply with automobile insurance requirements. In addition, people will not be trapped here like they are today, because now it is so dangerous and expensive to go back to their home countries and later return that many people simply stay here instead.
In other words, those who come here will be able to lead more normal lives.
Similarly, employers will have a more reliable source of workers, as well as less legal uncertainty about hiring them. This would be particularly beneficial in agricultural businesses, because it is estimated that about half of all workers who pick crops in our country are here illegally, which makes the labor market undependable.
Finally, some reasonable system should be implemented for those who wish to apply for citizenship to our country. Of course, that means that two thorny and contradictory situations will have to be addressed.
First, we should recognize the inequity of having people who came or stayed here illegally “jump the line” in front of large numbers of others from all over the world who have applied for entry or citizenship under our laws and waited their turn. But second, some account should be made for people who have been here for a long time, such as 15 to 20 years, who almost literally have no country to go back to.
And speaking about thorny issues, we must also address and finally resolve whether or not the 14th Amendment actually does or should allow anyone who is born within our borders automatically to become a citizen.
In that regard, we should consider that the thrust of this amendment, which was ratified in 1868 after the end of the Civil War, was simply to grant citizenship to the freed slaves. That is why the amendment provided that people who qualified for citizenship were already “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States.
Obviously as we fix the immigration system we will have to deal with some emotional and complicated issues. But none of them are irresolvable, as long as members of Congress have the political will. For the good of our country and almost everybody in it, it is up to each of us to be sure that they do.
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach.