02/13/2013 01:00 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Immigration Reform Is Bigger Than Our Borders

Like other Latino and immigrant advocates, the Latino Policy Forum has followed the immigration-related events of recent days with great interest, cheering at the possibility of a truly bipartisan push for immigration reform, while cringing at the red flags in the plans we've seen presented thus far.

As President Obama recently gave a nod to a bipartisan framework for immigration reform released by the Senate -- a plan rightly built on the pillars of a "tough but fair" path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an overhaul of our legal immigration system, an "effective" employment verification system, and an "improved" process for admitting future workers -- we can't help but scratch our heads around Washington's continued call for secure borders. Rhetoric around border security found its way into Obama's pro-reform speech in Las Vegas and into a White House fact sheet released shortly thereafter. But the Senate's plan takes the rhetoric a step further, calling for the border to be secured before much of the rest of reform can proceed.

How, exactly, do we gauge a secure border? Taking a cue from Senator John McCain, who said, "I'll know it when I see it," I'd like to call it as I see it: The border isn't the issue. Consider the following:

• Immigration from Mexico has already slowed to a near-halt: In 2011, border arrests were at the lowest levels this nation has seen since 1972. Between the struggling US economy, the improving Mexican economy, and a host of other factors, Mexican immigration to the United States is at a net zero.

• Despite the decrease in activity at the border, we continue to pump billions into security at the border: In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security's budget was $11.9 billion, doubled from the agency's inception in 2004. And the Senate's fresh-off-the-presses framework called for even more funds: Increases in drones, surveillance equipment and border agents that will only add to the country's running tab of $187 billion spent on immigration enforcement since 1986 -- more than what we've invested in all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined.

Just under half of the undocumented immigrants in this country never even walked across a border. They arrived in an airplane and overstayed a tourist visa. Beefing up drones and surveillance at the border won't change this phenomenon; addressing our backlogged visa system and the institutional forces of supply, demand, and globalization will.

• The ill-gotten notion that "Mexican" is synonymous with "unauthorized immigrant" isn't just short-sighted and simplistic; it is also crippling our ability to understand and address the scope and diversity of our nation's undocumented population. Research reveals that under 60 percent of unauthorized immigrants are Mexican (of note is that the statistic is from 2009, before immigration from Mexico began declining; the figure is likely lower today). We're overlooking other significant unauthorized immigrant populations -- including the estimated 11 percent that come from Asia and 5 percent from Europe and Canada -- who are not crossing our much-maligned southern border.

I'll concede that there are aspects of border security -- the smuggling of human beings, drugs, and arms is an urgent example -- that do demand immediate, deliberate attention. However, we can't allow the economic and moral imperatives for broad-reaching immigration reform -- the good stuff involving pathways to citizenship, ends to unfair hiring and labor practices, and overhauls to our antiquated visa systems -- to get lost in rhetoric around the border.

I've previously written about the ways that the Latino Policy Forum's Immigration Acuerdo, a collaborative of eight immigrant-serving organizations in Chicago, would like to see immigration systems rebuilt in this country, and am pleased to find many of our thoughts reflected in the plans pushed forth by both the Senate and President Obama. We agree on the need for a pathway to citizenship, a way out of the shadows for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in our country. We look to streamline and improve our current immigration system to avoid future backlogs and family separations that too often make following the rules more heart wrenching than breaking them. We embrace immigrants' economic and entrepreneurial contributions to this country, citing the need for everyone from agricultural workers to aeronautical Ph.D.s.

If we agree that immigration is bigger than our border, why hold reform hostage to it?

Co-authored by Sara McElmurry, communications manager, Latino Policy Forum.