An Immigration System Befitting a Nation of Immigrants

With our soon to be new President Biden set to propose long overdue comprehensive immigration reform as part of his Day One agenda tomorrow, today seems like the right day to cover immigration in the “We’re Better Than This” platform.

The songs for this prong of the platform say it all: celebrating that America is a nation of immigrants yet challenging us for our too often failure to live up to that ideal. The songs are America by Neil Diamond, City of Immigrants by Steve Earle, and American Land by Bruce Springsteen. Great songs all.

Fixing our broken immigration system starts with the recognition that people come to America for the same basic reasons now as they have from the time of our nation’s founding: to seek economic opportunity and the American dream, to join their families, or to flee persecution or terror. We truly are a nation of immigrants, and from the start of our country to today, immigrants have played integral roles in our economy and in our communities.

There are two fundamental problems with our current immigration system that lead to many others. First, the laws that dictate how many people we allow in legally are arbitrarily set and generally bear no relation to the realities of our economy or what is happening in the world. For many years now, the system has lacked sufficient legal channels to function efficiently and effectively. While we will never be able to let everyone in who would like to come here, a system that properly reflects our economic and societal needs will both make us safer and more successful for years to come.

Second, with few exceptions, the only available penalty for violations of these flawed laws is deportation. A lucky few can get a deferred status that allows them to stay temporarily or longer term with limited rights. But the system does not allow for the range of penalties that our criminal justice system affords. We don’t throw everyone in jail who violates our criminal law–there are fines, probation and other penalties depending on the severity of the offense so that the punishment fits the crime. Not so for immigration, and many of our current problems stem from that glaring omission.

There is only one way to solve the fundamental problems in our immigration system: taking an honest look at what has gone wrong and developing a fair process for handling the people who already are in the dysfunctional system, and then replacing it with a fair and efficient system that meets our economic and societal needs while ensuring that our safety and security are protected.

For those who have violated the immigration laws in the current broken system, there should be no amnesty, but a range of penalties depending on the type of violations that makes earned legalization possible for those who otherwise have played by the rules. Penalties should range from fines and a lengthy probation period, to deportation for those who have been convicted of serious crimes.

Biden’s immigration plan is a great start for getting us there, and it deserves serious consideration. And before Congress takes up that plan, there are three things they all should be required to do first: (1) Attend a citizenship ceremony to see real patriotism on display (2) Go to the border to get a full picture of the situation there from the perspective of all stakeholders (border patrol, advocates, local governments, and people who live and work there), and (3) Pass the citizenship test and a test of basic facts around immigration (e.g., what is most common way folks get here illegally? Hint, it is not at the border).

Fixing this problem often seems like the impossible dream in today’s politics, but public opinion research shows a clear majority of the country favors this balanced approach. And if we want to end illegal immigration and honor our history as both a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, there is no other way forward.

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