Immigrants have always been the backbone of our society. As in the past, millions of immigrants today make mighty contributions to our economic and cultural prosperity. They are our neighbors, co-workers, schoolmates, fellow worshipers and friends. Unfortunately, our outdated immigration system relegates many of them to the shadows of American society. Undocumented immigrants often risk their lives crossing dangerous border regions in search of the American dream. Once they’re here, many live a nightmare. They fear government institutions delivering social services like healthcare and education. They have no political representation. And when we debate immigration reform, they are the first people we forget.
We forget the 65,000 undocumented students who graduate each year from US high schools. Despite their successes these graduates have limited access to affordable tuition or financial aid for higher education; their immigration status lands them in a life of uncertainty. We also forget immigrant families. Under current law, spouses and young children often end up waiting seven years or more to reunite.
We need a comprehensive, realistic approach to immigration reform–one that not only addresses the hardships of immigrants and their families but also improves national security by documenting the immigrants who are here. Just such a comprehensive reform bill was floated last year: the bipartisan Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005. But once again, lawmakers showed their tendency to ignore the complexity of the immigration problem; the measure was introduced this past May but has still not come up for a vote.
As Congress continues to debate immigration reform, the emphasis remains on bulking up border security and enforcement–the same approach that has exacerbated the immigration crisis. But we know that enforcement-only policies do not work. Between 1990 and 2000 the US Border Patrol nearly tripled in size, while the number of undocumented immigrants continued to soar. This should come as no surprise. As long as there is no system that allows them to migrate legally, undocumented immigrants will continue to find ways to enter the country illegally.
It is time to implement a plan that grants legal status to hardworking and taxpaying immigrant workers already established in this country. Immigrant students should be given legal permanent residence, and full and equal access to fair college tuition rates and financial aid. Immigrant families should have a clear, efficient path to reunifying. Immigrant workers should be documented, allowing them to enjoy the rights and to exercise the responsibilities of US citizens.
We can heighten national security while bringing millions of hard-working immigrants out of the shadows and into full citizenship. But first we have to give up the illusion that enforcement alone can solve our immigration crisis.