In a TV interview last week, former President George W. Bush was asked what direction the country’s immigration policy should take.
“I support an immigration policy that is welcoming and upholds the law,” Bush said.
The last Republican to earn a large share of Latino votes summed up in a few words what the country’s priorities should be. Now the challenge is to find leaders willing to craft such a policy.
Recent news has turned up the heat on the immigration debate, from the Trump administration’s travel ban to his administration’s ramped up enforcement efforts, leading to protests and boycotts. Americans stand for the rule of law; every nation has a right and responsibility to enforce its borders and ports of entry. Yet economic, logistic and humanitarian realities make it impossible to deport 11 million migrant workers. Threading that needle is hard enough, and in today’s political climate, anything resembling a pragmatic compromise is a hard sell.
Even if the push is to deport only law breakers, there should be a clear distinction made between the true “bad hombres,” such as terrorists, drug smugglers and gang members who threaten everyone’s security, and immigrant and refugee families seeking a better life than what they left behind.
As we sort through these questions, let’s address a few general facts:
• President Donald Trump has not dramatically changed U.S. immigration policy. While he may be moving in that direction with stronger rhetoric, deportations were more frequent under President Barack Obama than any administration, more than 2.5 million in eight years, compared to about 2 million under Bush. Budgets for the Border Patrol and ICE were nearly doubled over a 10-year span under presidents of both parties, up to some $18 million a year by 2012, according to The Migration Policy Institute. Border Patrol staffing has increased in force from 15,000 to 21,000 in that time, with about 2,000 positions still open and unfilled, and plans to add even more.
Even Trump’s policy on not targeting “dreamers,” young people brought here by their parents, is largely the same as Obama’s.
• Border enforcement is stricter than it was, and crossings have dropped in recent years. Those apprehended in 2015 dropped to the lowest levels in nearly 50 years, according to U.S. Border Patrol data. Meanwhile, the number of Mexicans heading in the other direction has risen; some 1 million and their U.S.-born children returned to their home country from 2009 to 2014 while an estimated 870,000 came to the U.S., according to the Mexican National Survey of Demographic Dynamics.
And while there is not yet a complete wall – a difficult task, since the 2,000-mile border isn’t all flat, and isn’t all land -- fencing in recent years has been erected on 650 to 700 miles, along with drones, tower-mounted cameras and ground sensors.
Yet tightening the border doesn’t fully solve the problem; about half of those here illegally overstayed their legal visas, many from countries other than Mexico and Latin America.
• Do immigrants pay in as much as they take out? A report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy released February 2016 estimated they pay $11.64 billion in state and local taxes, often funding benefits they will never qualify to receive. While not all contribute payroll taxes, everyone pays local property taxes (included in rent) and sales taxes on goods they buy. You can’t live here without paying taxes unless you live in a shack in the woods and hunt your own food.
Most undocumented immigrants do not qualify for or seek public services, yet many can receive welfare or food stamps for their children who are born here. Those children fill classrooms and strain school district resources, while those without health insurance overrun hospital emergency rooms, sometimes with routine ailments, jacking up health costs for all. Some studies estimate the cost to taxpayers at more than $100 billion overall. Thus the Congressional Budget office estimates governments do spend more on undocumented residents overall than what they take in.
• Immigrants legal and undocumented contribute mightily to an economy that has become increasingly dependent on their labor. There’s little doubt we’d all pay more at the grocery store and elsewhere if it weren’t for the efforts of migrant workers. Native-born Americans won’t fill most of those jobs; during Georgia’s crackdown on immigrants in 2012, farmers couldn’t find enough farmhands, leaving produce to rot in the fields and costing the state some $140 million. The economic impact of immigrant labor in agriculture, hospitality and construction is estimated as high as $200 billion.
And not all work in menial jobs; those who have been here for years have gained enough economic independence to become business owners and professionals.
We can’t allow policy to be decided based on misconceptions, misinformation and outright bigotry. As Bush stated so well, sound immigration policy should be based on security, economics and compassion for people who want to work and live by the rules.
Laws must be upheld in a civil society, but those laws also can be changed. The legal route needs to be made easier and the illegal route harder. It’s time to close the back door and open the front door for those who contribute to our society.
That means a secure border, be it a wall or more sophisticated methods. It means penalties for employers who hire the undocumented but a streamlined, more accessible guest worker program to encourage legal hiring. It means deporting hardened criminals, then finding a legal avenue for those who contribute to society. And it means never lowering the bar for citizenship, which should remain a reward for those who meet the higher standards of the naturalization process.
The Statue of Liberty has greeted immigrants to our shores since the 19th century, our belief that anyone’s “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” make our country better when they share our values of freedom and hard work. To those who seek its benefits, we should welcome all willing to comply with our laws and traditions.
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