02/26/2013 04:54 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

Reform Immigration by Emphasizing Economic Development

Last week, the Senate began long-awaited hearings on immigration reform, shortly after President Barack Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) made strong calls for comprehensive immigration reform during the State of the Union address and the Republican rebuttal. Their statements were encouraging, but lawmakers have their work cut out for them in coming months as they work to reform a system that touches the lives of millions of people.

To begin, any discussion of immigration reform must recognize the forces that drive unauthorized migration to the United States -- hunger, poverty, lack of economic opportunity and inequality. Without addressing the root causes, the numbers of unauthorized immigrants in the United States will only continue to rise.

Latin America is the source of more than 80 percent of unauthorized migration to the United States. Millions of people have traveled to the United States because of poor conditions in their home countries. With visa wait times exceeding 23 years, many immigrants feel they have no choice but to enter the United States illegally to create a better life for their families. Reforming our development policies to eliminate the underlying issues of poverty and lack of economic opportunities abroad would be much more effective than increasing border security and tightening laws.

My colleagues and I are not alone in this sentiment. In a 2010 interview for 60 Minutes, Wayne Cornelius, emeritus director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, said that increased funding for border enforcement cannot, alone, curb unauthorized immigration. If fact, while U.S. spending on enforcement has increased from $1 billion in 1990 to almost $18 billion in 2012, it hasn't stopped the number of unauthorized immigrants to the United States from rising by 9 million over the same period.

A primary reason is that U.S. policy in those migrant-sending countries is aimed at increasing security rather than reducing poverty. In 2009, for example, 96 percent of U.S. assistance to Mexico was used for military and police assistance while just 0.1 percent was used on job-creation projects, which would ultimately reduce poverty.

Mexico and many other countries in Latin America continue to be plagued by high levels of poverty and lack of economic development. If we are serious about immigration reform, U.S. efforts must go beyond increased security to include sustainable development as a main goal--as well as job-creation projects that specifically target areas where both poverty and migration rates are highest. Lawmakers should use this recent push for immigration reform as an opportunity to expand and diversify our development assistance programs in those regions and allow potential migrants to form sustainable livelihoods at home.

But immigration reform doesn't end with improvements in home countries. As President Obama said, "Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

Reform can be a means of reducing poverty in the United States and building U.S. economic growth. For centuries, immigration has been a mechanism for poor and hungry people around the world to escape poverty and provide for their families--while contributing to the nation's development. Yet, despite indisputable contributions to the fabric of this nation, immigrants now in the United States have some of the highest food insecurity and poverty rates. Immigration reform must make conditions better for people already here in the United States.

We have a long road ahead, but recent statements from both Democrats and Republicans encourage us that we may soon see reform.

Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging lawmakers to end hunger at home and abroad. Andrew Wainer is the senior immigration policy analyst in Bread for the World Institute, which provides policy analysis on hunger and strategies to end it. For more information on Bread's immigration policy, please visit