One of the reasons we have not made progress in reforming our immigration system is that one side of the debate thinks of itself as the law and order side and frames those of us who have proposed comprehensive immigration reform as opposed to the rule of law. That shuts down the debate and makes it harder to arrive at a compromise, and it doesn't happen to be true, either. Already measuring the drapes for what they hope are committee chairmanships, some Republicans are standing by their policy of mass deportations, border militarization, and current law -- and current barriers to legal immigration -- as their prescription for "fixing" immigration. A few are throwing in additional punitive measures to rewrite the Constitution to deny citizenship to American children, make English "official," expand deportation, and do worse in an effort to sway voters.
I think many lawmakers and voters honestly think they are standing for the rule of law when they stand with House Republicans on immigration. But following the no compromise, "law and order" approach to immigration -- as we have done for the last two decades or more -- has yielded a lot less law and a lot less order. And because of the absolutism of their approach, we get gridlock. The type of bipartisan dialogue I participated in just a few years ago is unheard of today.
The question is not whether we should establish and enforce the rule of law, but how. We differ on what is the fastest, most efficient path to achieving these fundamental goals:
- Ending illegal immigration;
- Eliminating or greatly reducing the population of immigrants living and working in the U.S. illegally;
- Incentivizing legality while opposing amnesty; and
- An enforcement regime that holds employers and individuals accountable and that is not easy to evade.
The bill I wrote is the most direct, achievable path to the rule of law, secure borders, and eliminating illegal immigration. HR 4321 was introduced by Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX), endorsed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and co-sponsored by 103 Democrats in the House, but I can count on the fingers of one hand how many Republicans have inquired about it or asked me how we can work together to craft a compromise to address immigration reform. And I don't even need one finger to count how many Republicans have stepped forward to co-sponsor the bill.
Ending Illegal Immigration
We can end illegal immigration by making legal immigration a viable alternative. This way, immigrants come to the U.S. through a legal and orderly process, with a visa, a background check, health screening, and with our permission. There would not be an unlimited supply of visas, but visas for legal immigration would be vetted and assigned to individuals in a more efficient and equitable fashion than we have now. Many on the Republican side feel we already have a generous and equitable system, but I believe no one should be proud of our current legal immigration system.
Right now, we keep people waiting for visas -- sometimes for over twenty years -- and then wonder why some people choose to go around our system and not through it. We have made legal immigration extraordinarily difficult and expensive for those who want to live and raise their families in the U.S. and who qualify. And we have severely restricted who qualifies for legal immigration in the first place. We have made it next to impossible for low-skilled workers -- like many of those coming to the U.S. who are finding employment here despite our restrictive quota system -- to come legally. My proposal would make legal immigration available and process those who have already applied for legal immigration in a timely manner so that they can be reunited with family or start careers in the U.S. to help boost our economy.
One reason we have failed to update our immigration quotas for decades is because in almost every case, House Republicans oppose legal immigration or efforts to reform and modernize the visa process. This has prevented immigrants who are coming from doing so legally, within the rule of law, and fuels the black market. Under my plan, we would have an adjustable quota system that more closely matches demand for legal immigration with the supply of legal immigration, tying the supply of visas to the needs of our economy and protecting American workers from a large supply of undocumented workers.
By channeling immigration through ports of entry, with visas and vetting, we accomplish two paramount security goals: defunding the smuggling cartels and reducing illegal entry between ports of entry. There is no reason why immigrants who have come to support their families and have found jobs and are contributing to our economy should have to sneak across the border to do so. The reason people are walking across the Arizona desert is because we have not given them a realistic opportunity to apply, wait a reasonable period of time, and come to the U.S. on a bus or a plane under the scrutiny of border guards. And some of the most violent and cutthroat criminals have stepped into this gap between the supply of legal immigration and the demand generated by our economy to reap huge profits while sowing chaos and murder. Immigration happens. We should regulate and vet it on our terms, not those of smuggling cartels. That type of law and order is vociferously opposed by House Republicans.
Reducing the Population of Undocumented Immigrants
The way to reduce the population of immigrants living and working in the U.S. illegally is to give those individuals a firm but fair deal: you take action to get legal and get in the system by a certain deadline or face the consequences of a system that is much, much more difficult to evade.
I firmly believe that trying to deport or drive out a population of about 12 million men, women, and children living in the U.S. illegally is a fool's errand. That is too many people and they are too ingrained in U.S. communities and companies to be pushed out. Two-thirds of the undocumented population has been here a decade or more. More than 4 million U.S. citizens have parents who are undocumented. Driving them out isn't going to happen. It is not an option. Basing our immigration policy on something that isn't going to happen makes no sense and delays the establishment of the rule of law.
I would rather offer immigrants a "get legal or get out" policy that recognizes that almost all of them are here to stay. We do not want them living here illegally because it is not good for our society to have so many people floating outside the system with no opportunity to ever become citizens and fully recognized -- and fully taxed -- members of society. We cannot transition our current workforce, where about one in 20 are undocumented, to a fully legal workforce without a legalization process. To attempt enforcement alone -- as we have been doing for the past two decades or so -- only drives undocumented workers and employers further off the books and underground, which is exactly the opposite of establishing the rule of law.
Fines and full tax compliance by undocumented immigrants will put billions into our state, local, and federal coffers and we would guarantee that only those in full compliance with our tax code can live here and enjoy the benefits of U.S. society. Making sure that workers are given an opportunity to work towards legal status ensures that all labor laws apply to all workers. We should eliminate the opportunity employers currently have to hire from a pool of workers who are not protected by basic rights like health and safety codes, minimum wage, or protection from sexual harassment. The current system only undermines the rule of law.
You can click your heels as many times as you want, but the 7 million immigrants working in the U.S. without papers will not disappear. And it is intellectually dishonest to say we can drive out those people and create 7 million jobs for American-born workers. It is a cynical fantasy standing in the way of law and order on immigration.
Incentivizing Legality While Opposing Amnesty
Laws we passed in the mid-90s under GOP leadership to "get tough" on illegal immigration illustrate the short-comings of the GOP approach. During the Clinton Administration, the GOP controlled Congress passed -- and the President signed -- laws preventing immigrants in the U.S. illegally from leaving and coming back legally. We have literally created an incentive to stay here in the underground as opposed to being able to apply for legal immigration, leave, and come back, even for those few who qualify to do so under current law. We have also made crossing the border illegally much more expensive and dangerous, much to the delight of criminal smuggling cartels.
The response to these types of provisions is that immigrants here illegally are staying longer and bringing their families over illegally too, because we have practically eliminated the option of coming back and forth legally. By going down the "rule of law" path set out by House Republicans, we have seen a huge increase in the undocumented population, the number of employers hiring undocumented workers, and we have actually prevented people from being able to comply with the rule of law.
Enforcement That Is Hard To Evade
Finally, I think both the Republicans and Democrats want an employment verification system that prevents those here illegally from working and does not allow employers an easy way to get off the hook for hiring unauthorized workers. There are legitimate concerns about privacy and data security that come from both the political right and left, but there is really no way around a universal worker verification system of some sort.
The Social Security card my father was issued in the 1930s is the same paper card technology I have, my daughters have, and my grandson has. Over four generations of the Gutierrez family, we ought to have been able to institute a more elaborate and secure process. But the electronic verification system we have been testing since the mid-90s has two major problems: it doesn't prevent unauthorized workers from working and it erroneously prevents some U.S. citizens and legal immigrants from working. Expanding it -- as House Republicans have vowed to do -- only multiplies these problems. And if we further expand the experimental system while we have a workforce where one in 20 workers is here illegally, we create a huge incentive to move employees from the on-the-books payroll that is fully taxed to an off-the-books or under-the-table arrangement. That doesn't advance the rule of law, it undermines it.
Again, this is the approach taken in my bill and by other Democrats and not a single Republican has been willing to even discuss these ideas in the light of day.
I respectfully say to my colleagues in the Republican Caucus, and especially those who sit on the Judiciary Committee with me, that if you feel strongly about the rule of law, you should talk to me and join me in seeking solutions. We can work together on establishing the rule of law with regard to immigration. We agree on so much, but have let this issue devolve into two sides talking past each other, not with each other.
Supporting a comprehensive, sensible, carefully thought-out approach to reform is the only way to establish the rule of law when it comes to immigration. Simply ratcheting up what we are already doing -- and failing at -- further undermines the rule of law and delays the creation of an immigration system both parties -- and all the American people -- can be proud of. Erecting barriers to legal immigration and legality, then railing against the illegalities and wrapping yourself in the rhetoric of the "rule of law" is a political strategy; it is not an immigration strategy. Continuing to use immigration and immigrants as a political football is morally indefensible.