I have been a permanent resident of the United States for almost three years. As a “green card” holder, I have seven years of lawful residence ahead of me during which I plan to become an educated and tax-paying member of society. For me, the prize of citizenship is just two years and a history test away.
The road is much longer for others, as there is no clear path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants under current policy. However, for the first time since 2007, both congressional leaders and the president are pursuing comprehensive immigration reform.
The new set of proposals call for a balance between border enforcement and the legalization of 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Let’s assume for a second that this immigration overhaul is not about rewarding people who ignore the law but about advancing the interests of our society as a whole. If lawmakers fail to bolster the case for this balance, anti-immigration populism will sap the momentum that immigration reform needs.
Most likely, the outcome for millions of undocumented immigrants will be twofold: A path to citizenship for those who were brought illegally to the country as children, and a second-class citizenship for those who sneaked across the border or overstayed a temporary visa.
For starters, the second group will have to pay taxes and penalties, register, submit to a background check and wait in line behind those who followed the rules. This provisional status means no vote and no federal benefits.
Constantly proving that you are worthy of staying here does not seem to be incentive to come out of hiding. Yet that is exactly what it is. This move is beneficial for the 4.5 million American-born children whose parents are unauthorized. These parents will be able to work and send their kids to school without fear of being deported.
For the young immigrants without papers, all 2.1 million of them, the new permanent path to citizenship will allow them to drive, work and study – without risking deportation – while being able to contribute to the prosperity of several industries as a set of highly educated workers.
Without the threat of deportation, unprincipled employers will have to provide a decent wage and work conditions for their low-skilled employees, both immigrant and U.S. born.
Now that we have the best out of these 11 million people, it is time to deal with the ones who plan on migrating here. Will these proposals lead to another wave of illegal immigration? Doubtful.
A 2012 Hispanic Pew Report noted that the net flow of Mexican immigrants is zero, a phenomenon due mostly to improved economic conditions and lower birth rates.
Despite the zero net flow, building the fence higher continues to be the single response to our broken immigration system. A 2013 Gallup poll reported that 68 percent of Americans continue to favor increasing spending on enforcement at U.S. borders.
Our borders are quite secure. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the government spends $18 billion a year on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is more than all federal law enforcement agencies combined.
Even as the U.S. economy recovers, such a level of border security will prevent anyone from crossing or jumping or digging under the 14-foot-tall fence.
Deporting convicted criminals, as opposed to students and honest workers and ensuring that businesses hire only workers who are here legally constitute real reform. Applying tough sanctions on those who employ unauthorized workers would deter a new influx of illegal immigrants more effectively than splitting entire families.
In the State of the Union address, when President Barack Obama referred to the issue in terms of strengthening the economic growth of the country, he said to “harness the talents and ingenuity” of immigrants while incorporating “strong border security.”
Mr. President, there is a reason why the Canada-U.S. border is not as tightly regulated as the Mexico-U.S. border: Mexico is poorer than Canada.
The U.S. contributed to Mexico’s economic underperformance by passing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, which brought together the dissimilar economies of the United States, Mexico and Canada.
According to a 2009 report issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, NAFTA contributed to the displacement of agricultural workers in Mexico and their migration into the U.S.
The report also notes that “in spite of the rising militarization of the U.S. border, migration increased from about 350,000 per year before NAFTA to nearly 500,000 per year by the early 2000s.”
This is all to say that the immigration problem will not be resolved until poverty in other countries is eradicated. The U.S. can help itself by creating a more level playing field among trading partners, especially those in Central America and South America.
There is no doubt that a new immigration will clear Congress in the next couple of months. Whether it is because of the economic argument or the survival of the Republican Party, 11 million people will be finally perceived as something other than a problem.
Laura Ordonez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.