Immigration Reform: A Three-Legged Stool – 2005

Bishop Wenski’s Column

Immigration Reform: A Three-Legged Stool – 2005

While not a major theme of last fall’s campaign, a debate on immigration reform will be front and center in the early days of the new Bush Administration. Early last year, President Bush acknowledged that our immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. For this he deserves credit. Recognizing that there is a problem is a critical first step towards finding a solution.

In the past ten years, more than $20 billion has been spent on adding Border Patrol agents, building fencing, and employing technology to prevent border crossings. During roughly the same period, however, estimates on the net number of undocumented entering the country have risen from about 300,000 per year to about 500,000 per year. More disturbing is in the past five years that more than 2000 migrants have lost their lives perishing in remote portions of the American Southwest.

And yet those who survive the gauntlet of a dangerous border crossing find work in short order. Our economy needs their man power: the Labor Department projects that, by the year 2008, there will be six million more low-skilled jobs available than Americans able to fill them. At the same time, these workers contribute billions to the tax and Social Security systems.

Truth be told, our current system, instead of discouraging undocumented migration, makes it inevitable because adequate provisions in law do not exist to match up willing workers from other countries with unfilled jobs here. Work visas for unskilled workers are absurdly small compared to the demand—5,000 in the permanent system and up to 66,000 in the temporary one. Family unity visas can be even scarcer, with waiting times as long as ten years for Mexican families to be reunited with a relative who is a US citizen or legal resident.

We need immigration reform legislation with three major components, akin to a three-legged stool. The administration plan proposed last January addresses only one leg—employment—which is insufficient to support the weight on the system.

First, any new proposal should feature means for undocumented long-term residents to access permanent residency. Legalization does not necessarily mean amnesty. It can be conditioned on any number of criteria including, for example, “sweat equity” the undocumented have already accrued through their work in the U.S. Such a legal remedy would both stabilize immigrant families and the labor force.

Second, it should reform the employment-based legal immigration system in a way that increases legal avenues to work while protecting the rights of both foreign-born and U.S. workers. This would permit future flows of workers to enter safely and legally and reduce deaths at the border.

Third, the plan should shorten waiting times under the family reunification system. Too often, our current system separates husbands from wives and parents from children, a morally unacceptable outcome in a nation built upon the strength of the family.

Anti-immigrant polemicists ignore the human tragedy and familial dislocation enabled by the status quo, while discounting the invaluable contributions immigrants make to our nation. Americans are, as a whole, fair minded people. We cannot continue to accept the benefits of undocumented laborers but be unwilling to extend to them the protection of the law. The undocumented are not “breaking” the law as much as they are being “broken” by the law. After our country’s unhappy experience with Jim Crow “laws” that resulted in the creation of a large black underclass, we should not repeat the same mistake in tolerating the creation of a large immigrant underclass by not affording legal remedies that would afford them the protection of law and the opportunity for upward mobility.

We applaud the president for recognizing how the present immigration regime hurts both Americans and undocumented immigrants in America. The new Congress should work with President Bush to enact a comprehensive solution to our immigration crisis. Only such a “three-legged” comprehensive approach will protect human rights and prepare our nation for the challenges of the future.