Why the GOP Should Back Immigration Reform

I wrote the following op-ed for the Houston Chronicle:

The political and economic climate in our country is right for American leaders to fix our broken immigration system. Although they don't always agree on the solutions, Democrats and Republicans are in a position to forge a much-needed bipartisan consensus that a problem exists, and our Texas congressional delegation should take the lead on a bipartisan basis. No state or city is more affected by immigration than Texas and Houston. And as unfortunate as it is, the current U.S. economic recession has resulted in an exodus of illegal workers who came to our country for jobs that now don't exist. Before the economy resumes steam and new jobs again attract large numbers of workers across our borders, it is essential we confront the problem.

Given the state of our economy, President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress know they cannot pass immigration reform without significant Republican support, and that has been a tough sell to date. GOP congressional members will tell you that their base strongly opposes illegal immigration and are angry when illegal immigrants commit crimes and abuse our social services.

Unfortunately, merely being angry about illegal immigration does not constitute effective policy. Republican leaders should recognize that no one supports illegal immigration and we all agree that with an estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the United States, some break the law and use health care and other services (even if actual statistics show that they do so in percentages lower than other groups in society).

A Republican policy of opposing both illegal immigration and at the same time any meaningful immigration reform results in a dangerous affirmation of the status quo. That is a critical point missed by radio and TV commentators and other shrill anti-immigrant groups that fail to offer realistic answers. When pressed in one of the GOP presidential primary debates about his proposal for the estimated 12 million illegal workers here, Mitt Romney could only say that if elected president, he would issue an executive order giving all illegal aliens 90 days to depart the country. Ultimately, all sides agree that having risked their lives and treasure, illegal workers will not leave on their own and it would be logistically impossible, inhumane and economically insane for the government to round up 12 million men, women and children and deport them.

Just building a longer, higher, more durable fence is no answer, either. Candidly, fence contractors and Border Patrol officials concede that no barrier is foolproof. Illegal aliens will climb over, around, under and even through any fence that is built as long as there is the powerful magnet of higher-paying jobs in the U.S. Ironically, as we have increased border enforcement over the last several decades, the primary beneficiary has been organized crime, which simply charges a greater premium for smuggling services. Further, a harder border only fences illegal immigrants inside our country rather than allowing them to return home and maintain family ties. Legislation mandating use of electronic verification (E-Verify) of all new hires by itself would only push illegal workers further into the underground economy.

Any serious proposal to deal with illegal immigration should include the following points:

  • A reliable forge-proof identity document. To dry up the job magnet, Congress should provide a uniform forgery-proof biometric document in the form of an upgraded Social Security card so employers can determine on the spot who is authorized to work. Congress failed in 1986 when it designated the easily copied Social Security card as the primary document to establish U.S. work authorization and did not require that it be upgraded. At the same time, Congress should increase penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants and address the independent-contractor loopholes that allow employers to bypass verification laws. That alone would be far more effective than quadrupling the Border Patrol.
  • Temporary worker program. Most illegal workers who come to get a job only want to work, save money and go home. Yet there is no viable temporary worker program for semi- or low-skilled workers. Congress should restrict same to applicants from North America, thus permitting circular immigration, and protect U.S. workers by requiring proof of prior recruitment of U.S. workers at the prevailing wage.
  • Registration of illegal workers. Congress should require those here illegally to come forward within a reasonable time frame to be identified, registered and fingerprinted. Those without criminal records would be eligible for an interim status that would allow them to work, pay taxes and travel in and out of the country. Such status could be extended only upon payment of a fine for violating U.S. immigration law and back taxes and registering in English-language and civics courses. Further extension would also be conditioned upon completion of the latter.
  • No automatic citizenship. No one would be allowed to cut in line and apply for lawful permanent residency (LPR) or so-called green-card status ahead of someone who has already legally applied through family ties or a U.S. employer. Thus, at best it would take eight to 12 years to establish eligibility to apply for LPR. Furthermore, with interim status and authorization to work in the United States and travel home, many would never seek to apply for LPR. Those who did would not be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship for another five years. Based upon current statistics, a smaller percentage of those individuals who achieve LPR would gradually apply for citizenship. Thus, immigration reform would not result in an increase in any new voters in our country for decades, but their U.S. citizen children will vote.

By being viewed as obstructionists, Republicans risk alienating Hispanic-American voters who interpret the heated anti-immigrant rhetoric as anti-Hispanic. In the not-too-distant future, this growing generation of Texans will attain political power just as other ethnic groups did in the past. While those voters share many values with the Republican Party, they could condemn the Republican Party in Texas to minority status for years unless it can find a way to support realistic, common-sense immigration reform.


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