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Immigration: Slow Down, Get It Right

Congressional Democrats are determined to pass their version of immigration reform. They’re trying to include it in their budget bill again — even after the Senate parliamentarian, who rules on what can be added to “reconciliation” bills, rejected their previous two attempts.

To be sure, immigration reform is needed, especially considering the humanitarian crisis at the southern border.

But the word “reform” is tricky. In the 1990s, civil rights icon Barbara Jordan led the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which spent six years deliberating over what was best for our country. It presented its final recommendations in 1997, with the endorsement of President Bill Clinton.

For the Jordan Commission, reform meant a serious reduction in legal immigration, more worksite enforcement, employer sanctions, enhanced border security, and refugee admissions capped at 50,000. And surprisingly, the Commission was unanimous on nearly every recommendation. Initially, there was considerable bipartisan support in Congress.

But by 2000, Democrats and labor unions had done a 180-degree turn, championing the cause of expanded immigration and another path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Republicans were divided: business lobbies wanted the flow of cheap labor to continue, but Republicans were growing nervous about what the changing demographics would mean for their voter base, just as Democrats undoubtedly came to appreciate their voting base was expanding. 

Both parties lost sight of the goal of the Commission, articulated by Barbara Jordan ” .. it is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.”

For two decades we’ve been trying to reach a consensus about what constitutes our “national interest” in a changing world. 

We want employers to have the workers they need, but we don’t want unfair competition for Americans, and we especially want marginalized groups to get better jobs. We want higher wages, affordable housing, a growing middle class, and a fairer division of wealth. Immigration policy impacts all these goals.  

We want to be compassionate to the Dreamers who were innocent of breaking laws, giving them legal status so they can get on with their lives, but their parents were not innocent. On the other hand, we don’t want to separate families who have lived here and contributed for many years. But neither do we want to reward illegal behavior with American citizenship. Obviously, we must draw a line somewhere.

Economists remind us that immigration will “make the economy grow,” meaning that more workers and more consumers will give us a bigger GDP. But that doesn’t mean that per capita incomes grow or that extreme wealth disparities will shrink. We have many factors to consider.

We need solutions that allow for compromise, without simply capitulating to mass lawlessness and unscrupulous opportunists. Preserving respect for the rule of law and trust in government integrity is vital.

We also want to be fair to legal immigrants. Many have waited patiently outside our border for years, respecting our laws. From their perspective, it isn’t fair that people who broke our laws are rewarded with citizenship.

And we want to be generous to asylum applicants, but how generous? Some would insist that our values and our history as a nation compel us to accept all people who are fleeing intolerable situations. But Gallup reports that 158 million people want to resettle in the US. We clearly cannot assimilate even a fraction of that. A limit is needed, and Congress needs to decide the most humane way to enforce it.

And finally, since immigration accounts for nearly all our population growth, we need to consider how numerous to make ourselves in light of our growing homelessness, shrinking water tables, and the need to reduce carbon emissions.

Democrats are understandably frustrated. They’ve been pushing “comprehensive immigration reform” for years. In their view, anything less than another mass legalization or path to citizenship is inhumane. Certain that their solution is the only obvious solution, they are still trying to game the system by attaching their legalization scheme to a budget bill. No need to negotiate with pesky Republicans. It’s tempting. But it’s wrong. 

Immigration is highly complex policy, requiring serious deliberation, not sound bites. Slipping a divisive bill with enormous long-term fiscal and population implications into a budget bill, rather like sweeping an unsightly problem under the rug, is no way for a democracy to conduct its business.

Please Congress, no hasty decisions. Take a deep breath and recommit to reaching across the aisle. 

Jonette Christian is a founder of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy.

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1 comment

  • This is a great column. We need to reduce immigration to levels that will not contribute to U.S. population growth. Our population growth is ecologically untenable, and it is driven by immigration, not high fertility.

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