Rice, Cisneros, Barbour and Rendell say the similarities on both sides are striking. | AP Photo
It’s easy to conclude, with Congress seemingly gridlocked on so many issues, that comprehensive immigration reform will be yet another casualty of today’s divisive politics. But where some may see conflict, we see real progress.
What is most striking to us are not the differences, but the similarities, in many of the views expressed by those on both sides of the reform debate. As co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force, we have mapped this common ground and believe there is ample room for achieving consensus. Today we are releasing initial recommendations to fix several key areas of the U.S. immigration system.
First, the public deserves to know whether the nation’s borders are secure and how effectively their border-protection tax dollars are being spent. To this end, we believe Congress should authorize the establishment of a set of scientifically valid measures to assess progress on border control. These measures should be audited by an independent commission, provide a comprehensive picture of the flow of unauthorized immigration and be published periodically for public scrutiny. More transparency should lead to greater public accountability.
Controlling the border, however, is only part of the solution. Protecting America’s national security also depends on our ability to enforce our immigration laws within the country. Effectively responding to the problem of individuals overstaying their visas is critical. The new border-control measurement system must therefore also quantify the percentage of individuals who stay in the United States after their visas have expired.
Second, any new system must be fair to those who have followed the rules. No unauthorized immigrant should receive a green card before visas have become available for all who have applied through legal channels and are waiting in line, with the exception of individuals brought here as children. Visas for those currently in line should be made available within a maximum 10-year period.
At the same time, we must appropriately deal with the 11 million individuals residing in the United States without authorization. These individuals are not living up to their economic potential, are open to exploitation and cost us millions of dollars annually in law enforcement and other expenses. No matter how you spin it, what exists today is de facto amnesty, a situation we can no longer afford or tolerate.
It makes little economic and moral sense to allow these unauthorized individuals to remain in the shadows of our society on a permanent basis. Those who pay all penalties, pass a criminal background check and fully comply with other requirements should have the ability to eventually apply for citizenship. This approach is consistent with the American values of fairness and decency.
Third, a steady flow of legal immigrants contributes to sustaining a healthy, productive population. It strengthens the U.S. housing market, increases tax revenues, contributes to the financial stability of our entitlement programs and supports entrepreneurship.
The immense contribution that legal immigrants have made to our nation’s economic development is well documented: American history is full of stories of immigrants who have fully integrated into our society and built businesses from the ground up. Immigrants helped found many corporate giants, and they play a huge role in Silicon Valley and other centers of technology and innovation.
A key element of a successful legal immigration system is a robust worker visa program that matches our nation’s economic needs with workers from abroad, both skilled and unskilled. A reformed legal immigration system that attracts these workers to our shores will expand our economy and create jobs for native-born citizens. It is also the best tool for preventing future unauthorized immigration.
This is particularly true for U.S. small businesses, many of whom currently employ unauthorized immigrants. Allowing small businesses to hire and recruit a limited number of temporary immigrant workers through simplified procedures will cut down on bureaucracy and red tape, increase efficiency, and help these businesses secure the workers they need in a lawful manner.
To protect U.S. workers while nourishing our economy, employment-based immigration levels should fluctuate based on economic needs, with new workers being directed toward occupations where there are labor shortages. With employers enjoying the benefit of having access to more workers in a reformed system, they must be subject to stricter penalties if they choose to exploit and hire unauthorized immigrants. Cheating results in gaining a competitive advantage, and therefore all employers — small and large alike — must abide by the rules of the game.
We have been encouraged by the constructive debate that has occurred around immigration reform. As the debate continues, we must avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good: Our current system is fundamentally flawed and broken. If we can focus on where there is agreement and then work conscientiously to narrow our differences, then real and durable reform is possible.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, and former Govs. Haley Barbour and Ed Rendell co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force.