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Alejandro Escalona Headshot

Time Is Ripe for Immigration Reform

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In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama mentioned again the need to fix the broken immigration system. Now it is time to deliver on his promise of immigration reform.

"Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country," Obama memorably said in his speech on Inauguration Day.

Obama must now move from rhetoric to action. Reforming an obsolete immigration system should be a priority for his administration. The president and the Democrats might not find a better time to deal, in a sensible way, with the 11 million undocumented people living among us while controlling the flow of immigrants and securing our borders.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Obama with a group of colleagues when he was a still a U.S. senator from Illinois. At that meeting, Obama defended his vote to build a wall along the southwest border with Mexico. His vote sent shock waves through the Latino community of Chicago, which prompted local leaders to criticize him.

During the interview, Obama stood behind his vote for building a wall, but he apologized for not consulting extensively with the Latino community. He later met with a large group of Latino leaders to shore up differences.

Obama did not apologize or backtrack on his position. I disagreed that building a wall -- no matter what size -- would deter immigrants from coming to the United States illegally. But I respected Obama for standing his ground.

I agree that securing the southern border is critical when considering immigration reform. Obama and the previous administration have spent an estimated $90 billion over 10 years to beef up security at the U.S.-Mexican border.

A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute in Washington pointed out that the federal government currently spends more money enforcing immigration than on enforcing all other major federal laws put together. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in fiscal year 2012 spending for the Customs and Border Protection, ICE and US-VISIT reached nearly $18 billion.

The reports highlights that "this amount exceeds by approximately 24 percent total spending for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Secret Service, US Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which stood at $14.4 billion in FY 2012."

In his first four years in office, Obama deported 1.5 million undocumented immigrants becoming the president that has deported more people in history. In his fourth year alone, more than 400,000 undocumented immigrants were deported. Among immigration reform advocates, Obama has earned the nickname of "Deportator in Chief."

The goal has been not only to prevent terrorists from coming in through the southern border, but also to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants -- mostly Mexicans -- from coming to the Unites States. Well, the flow has virtually stopped. Arrests at the southwest border in 2011 were down to their lowest levels since 1972.

The New York Times wrote that "fewer than 100,000 illegal border-crossers and visa-violators from Mexico settled in the United States in 2010, down from about 525,000 annually from 2000 to 2004."

Mexicans are choosing to stay home instead of venturing north because of the bad U.S. economy, increased security at the border, the dangers posed by drug cartels as well as improvements in the quality of life in their country.

In fact, Mexican workers are increasingly coming here to work legally.

"There were more than 500,000 guest worker entries from Mexico in 2011, the largest number in history," Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton University told me.

As the U.S. economy continues to improve, there will be a greater need for labor and the deport-all approach to illegal immigration will start to subside. Our country should not have millions living in the shadows. It is a matter of national security, but also of economic opportunity.

In 2010, the Center for American Progress concluded that immigration reform would lead to a $1.5 trillion growth in gross domestic product over the next ten years. Legalized immigrants would buy homes and cars generating new revenues for the private sector and more taxes for governments.

Comprehensive immigration reform makes sense. Obama should work with Congress to approve a path to legalize those undocumented immigrants who work hard and have not committed serious crimes.

The time is ripe for immigration reform.

Alejandro Escalona is a writer and editor. He lives in Chicago.