Immigration Reform Challenging

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, March 12, 2006
By Leon E. Panetta
The inscription on the Statue of Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants to a new land: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

But that promise has been challenged throughout our history by the forces of fear and discrimination against those who have sought the sanctuary of liberty. Somehow this nation has survived as the land of immigrants. Today, unfortunately, those same forces are again threatening the promise of America.

For almost 400 years, going back to the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1607, immigrants were drawn to this country. Some came because of the shortage of labor, others as indentured servants, and still others as slaves. Into a country whose population in 1815 was only 8.4 million there came a massive migration of more than 35 million: 5 million between 1815 and 1860, 10 million between 1860 and 1890, and more than 20 million between 1890 and 1930. My parents were among those who came from Italy in the 1930s.

But with this immigration came a backlash of resistance that often found its way into the Congress. In 1882, Congress excluded further Chinese immigration. Acts of 1882, 1891, 1903 and 1907 further restricted those who could enter the nation. Organized labor secured an act forbidding importation of laborers under contract. Exclusion of Japanese laborers was effected by the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1908 with Japan. A literacy test was enacted in 1917 and limits to immigration from Europe and Asia were adopted in the 1920s.

Despite these laws and limits, immigration continued with political refugees from World War II, displaced persons, and those escaping suppression behind the Iron Curtain. A wave of new immigration has flowed into the United States from Vietnam, Asia, Africa, Russia, Mexico, Latin and Central America, Cuba and the Balkans.

Beyond the normal channels of immigration, it is now estimated there are some 11 million undocumented immigrants, with anywhere from 500,000 to 600,000 continuing to enter this nation each year. Coming largely through a porous southern border, migrants are crossing deserts, using tunnels, guided by hucksters, coyotes and family into the United States. Many die, many are caught but many make it through this living hell and disappear into the underground job market. They find work in agriculture, hotels, restaurants, construction, meatpacking and domestic labor. Many are in permanent jobs and have settled with their families in communities throughout America.

But as in the past, there is an angry political backlash to the failure of the United States to effectively control its borders. Congress is now considering legislation that would make it a crime to live and work in the United States illegally, would allow military resources to be used to beef up border security, would impose harsh sentences, require deportation of all undocumented immigrants, increase the border patrol and build 686 miles of fence along five sections of the U.S.-Mexican border.

While some would call this immigration reform, the fact is that it has little to do with reform and a great deal to do with retreating from the realities of immigration in America. The purpose of this effort is to stop all illegal immigration at the border and arrest the 11 million undocumented immigrants and deport them. That is the political equivalent of trying to build a dam in a flood and trying to push the water back into the dam. It will not happen.

Immigrants flow into this nation in part because of failed enforcement but also because of the gravitational pull of a job market that absorbs immigrants as fast as they come across the border. As much as the political pundits, commentators, border vigilantes and members of Congress may wish for a simple solution to stop all of this, the reality is that true immigration reform must deal with a multitude of complex issues.

The most effective model for an immigration bill was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. As a member of Congress at the time, I participated in long negotiating sessions between Republicans and Democrats to develop the kind of compromise that would be supported in the Congress and signed by President Reagan. The so-called Simpson-Rodino bill was premised on four central provisions: employer sanctions; increased border enforcement; a temporary worker program; and a legalization process. It enjoyed broad support in the Congress from both conservatives and liberals and was recognized as the kind of comprehensive approach essential to immigration reform.

Unfortunately, as happens in Washington, once the law passed, both the executive and legislative branches failed to maintain the funding and support essential to fulfilling the promise of the legislation. When leadership fails, crisis drives policy.

Enforcement alone will not stem the tide of immigrants seeking jobs in America. Even a guest worker program, as advocated by the president, will be difficult to control because workers will use the program to disappear into the broader job market.

The Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., has put together an independent task force on immigration and America’s future that is bringing together business, labor, law enforcement, federal, state and local government, and immigration experts to fashion common-sense reform. As a member of that task force, I believe it represents a legitimate effort to treat immigration as part of a larger human capital strategy to ensure the nation’s economic prosperity, national security and social well-being in the 21st century.

Among the key recommendations the task force is working on are the following:

  • Streamlining the visa system into three non-immigrant admissions categories: visitor visas, temporary work visas and provisional visas. Today there are more than 70 categories of visas that are because of the numbers involved virtually impossible to enforce.
  • Establishing mandatory workplace enforcement with a requirement that the Social Security Administration be mandated to develop a secure Social Security card and a plan for replacing all existing cards beginning in three years.
  • Targeting of unauthorized immigrants with outstanding arrest warrants and criminal immigrants for removal while allowing the remaining unauthorized population to be eligible to apply for legal status over a two- to three-year period.
  • Improving border enforcement to include the newest technology, equipment and personnel at the U.S.-Mexico border and also at all legal ports of entry, the northern border, seacoasts and U.S. consulates abroad.
  • Strictly limiting the role of the state and local police to identifying, holding and transporting removable immigrants who are legitimately arrested for involvement in non-immigration offenses.
  • Providing adequate funding to the states and localities that face the burden of providing education, social services and health care to help integrate immigrants and their families.

There is no such thing as simple or easy immigration reform. It will take time, patience and commitment. Today’s immigration policies, laws and systems are not aligned with broad national goals and many work at cross purposes to our interests, undermining basic tenets of democracy and the rule of law. Illegal immigration has fueled deep resentment of immigration more generally and has led to widespread skepticism about the capacity of government to manage immigration at all.

America has a responsibility to control its borders but we also have an obligation to fulfill the promise of America to help those “yearning to breathe free…” We are a better nation because of those who followed the beacon of liberty to America. That light and that promise must never be broken.

Leon Panetta is a former congressman and White House chief of staff whose column appears every other month in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.


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