07/26/2013 06:34 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

Immigration Reform: A Major Opportunity to Advance America's National Interest

Several days ago, a new public opinion poll revealed a startling shift in the way people across the globe view our nation's standing as the world's leading economic and political superpower.

A growing number of people now believe the U.S. is losing its place to China as the world's leading economic and political power, according to a Pew Research Center survey of around 38,000 people in 39 countries, released on July 18. In 23 of those countries, majorities or pluralities say that China has -- or will eventually -- overtake the U.S. Perhaps more surprisingly, that view is shared by 47 percent of Americans (compared with 36 percent in 2008). The Pew findings also called into question America's economic might: only 41 percent of survey respondents called America the world's top economic power, down from 48 percent five years ago.

The release of the Pew survey coincides with a crucial period in the ongoing debate in Washington over comprehensive immigration reform, perhaps the most ambitious piece of legislation currently before the Congress. That debate continues to center primarily on issues of national security and terrorism, while also raising the larger, fundamental question of whether Americans will continue to maintain a free and open society.

While these are undeniably important issues to consider, I believe the time has come -- given the economic and political and strategic pressures we now face as a worldwide power -- to reevaluate the context in which we view our nation's immigration system and to recognize that comprehensive immigration reform presents a major opportunity for the nation to strengthen its competitive and leadership position in the world. Only by tackling immigration reform within this framework -- one that takes into account our security challenges, as well as our economic and social challenges -- will we be able to devise a system that enables us to compete more effectively, be more secure and maintain the nation's tradition of openness.

A new strategic context, therefore, is critical. So, too, is a greater understanding of the numerous benefits to better immigration policy, beyond the important task of making our nation more secure. They include preserving cultural diversity, which introduces Americans to new foods, languages, religions and ways of life. These benefits also include ensuring real economic growth opportunities. Over the years, our economy has been fueled by immigrant workers on both sides of the wage scale -- from the foreign-born entrepreneurs who come to this country to launch new business ideas and innovations to the farmhands who pick our food crops.

From an economic and cultural standpoint, the advantages to good immigration policy far outweigh the disadvantages. This is not to say, however, that immigration isn't an extremely complicated matter.

Within the larger issue are specific elements, such as illegal immigration, temporary immigration and family unification, each of which presents policymakers their own subset of questions and issues, such as border security, employer verification and the impact of immigration reform on the nation's native-born workforce. There is also the very real question of immigration and assimilation: Are we sufficiently welcoming and integrating immigrants into our local communities? As I have often discovered living and working in southern Indiana, the assimilation or integration process can often cause considerable tension, especially in communities with limited diversity.

Additionally, current policies and procedures related to each of these elements are incredibly complex, and an entire legal profession exists just to manage immigration work. Simply put, we have system that is way too overburdened and ill-equipped to serve us well.

For most of our nation's history, Congress has dealt with immigration issues on a sporadic basis, sometimes waiting a decade or more before enacting new policy. In reality, these actions have mostly amounted to adjustments of immigrant levels. This piecemeal approach to an issue that demands more comprehensive and sustained attention has proven to be an inadequate and insufficient way of moving forward meaningful immigration reform. For one, it is too responsive to specialized interests. What's more, it has also saddled us with an immigration policy that has failed to keep up with the economic, political and strategic challenges we confront in a continually changing world.

The news is not all bad.

Immigration, in itself, continues to be an extremely powerful statement concerning the core values we hold as a nation, including freedom, equality and individual opportunity.

We are a nation of immigrants. No poll is needed to convince us of this, and the diversity of our people offers a powerful response to an increasingly connected world.

But what Americans do need to be convinced of is that immigration reform requires a new approach. We must align our immigration policy with the pressures we face as a nation in today's hypercompetitive 21st century world.

More specifically, we need to implement a constant mechanism that adjusts the nation's immigration levels based on thorough analysis of the U.S. economic and security needs. To this end, I strongly advocate for the formation of a standing policy group or commission that would oversee and periodically (every two or three years) advise Congress on immigration changes that will ensure our economic competitiveness. This entity would be somewhat akin to the Federal Reserve, the nation's central banking system, except instead of influencing interest rates, it would constantly track and study market needs and demands, unemployment levels, changing demographics and other trends and make strong recommendations on adjusting immigration levels to enable us to compete and be secure in the world.

Many Americans who are around my age -- and even those who are considerably younger -- grew up in an environment in which there was no question that America was the No. 1 nation in the world. As the Pew poll suggests, that's simply not true anymore. Indeed, we are confronted with real economic challenges, to say nothing about the serious security challenges we continue to face.

Against this backdrop, immigration must be looked at in a new way: Immigration must be considered in the context of what's best for advancing America's national interest -- and maintaining our standing as the world's leading superpower.

Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.