Considering Earned Legalization for Immigrants

In immi­gra­tion cir­cles, there are two pre­vail­ing argu­ments around how to fix our bro­ken immi­gra­tion system.

The first posi­tion advo­cates for an approach that focuses exclu­sively on enforce­ment. This approach includes increased fund­ing, tech­nol­ogy and per­son­nel at the bor­der, as well as inte­rior enforce­ment and a work-verification sys­tem. The pri­mary objec­tive is to keep out unwanted immi­grants, crim­i­nals, ter­ror­ists and drugs. Know­ing that mass depor­ta­tion would be pro­hib­i­tively costly and morally repug­nant, this posi­tion argues that over time, some immi­grants will “self-deport” as job oppor­tu­ni­ties dry up due to increased enforce­ment.

How­ever, even dur­ing the reces­sion we have not expe­ri­enced a mass exo­dus, just a reduc­tion in new immi­grants arriv­ing in the U.S.

More­over, an enforcement-only approach is costly — we have seen a sharp increase in fed­eral spend­ing on sur­veil­lance and secu­rity — and does not address the real­ity of our labor needs.

The sec­ond posi­tion calls for a more com­pre­hen­sive approach, along the lines that Pres­i­dent Obama spoke of in his speech. This pack­age of reforms includes the enforce­ment strate­gies of the first approach and adds an earned legal­iza­tion pro­gram and adjust­ments to legal chan­nels of entry for both tem­po­rary and per­ma­nent immi­grants. It also includes the DREAM Act, which allows youth with­out legal sta­tus (through no fault of their own) to con­tribute to the coun­try they grew up in by earn­ing cit­i­zen­ship through higher edu­ca­tion or mil­i­tary service.

Argu­ments against com­pre­hen­sive reform often cen­ter on the legal­iza­tion com­po­nent: It is unfair to reward immi­grants who have bro­ken the law, the argu­ments go; it sends a sig­nal that the U.S. looks the other way when it comes to this behav­ior; and it is unfair to immi­grants who are wait­ing in line to enter the coun­try legally.

Enforcement-only short­sighted
In real­ity, we have been oper­at­ing with an enforcement-only approach since the lat­ter part of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion. George W. Bush ini­ti­ated the Secure Fence Ini­tia­tive, and the Obama admin­is­tra­tion has con­tin­ued beef­ing up secu­rity with more fund­ing and more per­son­nel on the South­ern bor­der than ever before. National secu­rity and bor­der enforce­ment is an area both sides agree on.

But we also need to look for­ward. Demo­graphic trends argue for com­pre­hen­sive immi­gra­tion reform. This approach rec­og­nizes that immi­grants and their chil­dren not only are part of our labor force and our com­mu­ni­ties, but a large part of our future, too.

The United States enjoys a pop­u­la­tion growth rate higher than its peers in the indus­tri­al­ized world. Given the gray­ing of Amer­ica, we need immi­gra­tion to sup­ply younger work­ers to main­tain our com­pet­i­tive edge in the global mar­ket. In this decade, more than one-third of U.S. pop­u­la­tion growth came from immi­gra­tion; more if we include the off­spring of immi­grants. Nation­wide, nearly one-quarter of all chil­dren have at least one foreign-born parent.

Push­ing the DREAM Act with­out wait­ing for a con­gres­sional debate on broader reform would be a sen­si­ble step in the right direc­tion. But Amer­i­cans want action on the big­ger prob­lem, and opin­ion polls show a major­ity sup­port earned legal­iza­tion. We can­not “kick the can down the road” again.