05/02/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

We are a Nation of Immigrants

As lawmakers in Washington D.C. debate the merits of the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform bill, I am reminded of my own immigration story and my experience as a former Police Chief fighting anti-immigrant forces in Arizona. Like many immigrants, my family came to the United States when I was 13 years old to seek a better life. Coming from Cuba, we came here with an appreciation of a democratic society that would afford us opportunities not possible in our home country.

In my 30 year career in law enforcement, I have seen the effects of our nation's broken immigration system. As the former Police Chief of Mesa, Arizona, I went head to head with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and anti-immigration groups. I witnessed immigrant families being torn apart and the Latino community -- undocumented and documented -- being pushed further underground because of the climate of fear brought on by Arpaio. Because I fought to create a sense of trust between law enforcement and the Latino community, I personally became a target of anti-immigration forces.

Now, as the Senate's Gang of Eight declare it the year of immigration reform with the proposed "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act," we can expect anti-immigrant forces to ramp up their rhetoric. I call on our lawmakers to look beyond the fear mongering and approach immigration reform with a sense of compassion and urgency.

We need a pathway to citizenship.
Undocumented immigrants currently live in the shadows. There are negative social implications to keeping a system that allows the creation of second class citizens, especially when it comes to public safety. We need a realistic and practical way to integrate the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in our communities. It is unworkable to deport millions of people, especially those who have been in the United States for many years. Most of these immigrants are contributing community members, taxpayers, have children who were born in this country, and are deeply integrated into our society.

No human being is illegal.
In the context of today's immigration debate, the term illegal immigrant has often become synonymous with hate speech. It is used by xenophobes in an attempt to dehumanize immigrants without regard for their contributions to our economic and social well-being. Unauthorized immigrants are integrated into the fabric of our everyday lives -- they are people who care for our children, clean our homes and hotels, farm our food, create new businesses and engineer new products. They pay billions in taxes annually and make significant contributions to our economy. Attempts to implement mass deportations would create massive economic displacement crippling many sectors of our economy and put tax payers on the hook for billions of dollars in law enforcement costs associated with deportations.

There is no correlation between immigrants and high crime rates.
Research shows that areas with a high immigrant population often have much lower rates of crime than similarly situated communities without high immigrant representation. The border town of El Paso, Texas has been ranked the safest big city in the United States for the last three years. New York City and Los Angeles, respectively, the largest and third largest cities in the country, have some of the lowest per capita crime rates of any urban center, yet both cities have very high number of immigrants, both authorized and not.

Our borders are the safest they have ever been.
As a law enforcement official, I support strong border security to protect our homeland from crimes such as drug and human trafficking. Anti-immigrant forces have hijacked the debate on comprehensive immigration reform by calling for more border security at a time when our borders are the safest they have ever been. It is unrealistic to shut down our border completely. The U.S. already spends more than $17 billion annually on immigration and border enforcement. Any talk of immigration reform attached to greater border security should be viewed with caution by those truly interested in reform.

While it is important to control access to our nation and keep track of those who visit or come to work, preconditioning reform on the creation of new enforcement tools must be resisted. For some, the call for greater border security has become the means to stall meaningful reform while trying to appear reasonable.

We are a nation of immigrants.
Our national economic, social and cultural vibrancy are the direct result of the labor and efforts of generations of immigrants. A comprehensive immigration reform must include a pathway to citizenship for those here now, a well-structured market-based system to meet legitimate labor needs that protect both the interest of American workers and industry, and a family reunification mechanism. A pathway to citizenship will not only make our communities safer, it will also make our country stronger.

George Gascón is the District Attorney of the City and County of San Francisco. He is the former Assistant Chief of Police Chief in Los Angeles and former Police Chief of Mesa, Arizona and San Francisco. He is the only former Police Chief in the nation to become District Attorney.