The persistent problem of illegal immigration has also soured many Americans on the benefits of an open system. The presence of nearly 12 million illegal immigrants has diminished respect for the law, weakened labor rights, strained our relations with Mexico and other nations and unfairly burdened public education and social services in many states.
In a post-9/11 world in which the U.S. must be able to thwart terrorist plots by extremists attempting to come here from abroad, illegal migration also creates an unacceptable security risk. Illegal immigration reflects both the inadequacies in our enforcement regime and the failure to provide enough legal channels to meet, under normal economic circumstances, the demands of the U.S. labor market.
Congress and the Obama administration should move ahead on three fronts: reform the legal immigration system so that it responds more adroitly to labor market needs and enhances U.S. competitiveness; restore the integrity of immigration laws through more effective enforcement, especially at the workplace; and offer a fair and orderly way to allow many of those currently living here illegally to earn the right to remain legally.
There are two objections to pushing ahead with such measures now. First, with a deep recession and national unemployment nearing 10 percent, encouraging more immigration seems to make little sense at the moment. That is why the U.S. needs a more flexible system that is responsive to changes in the economy. Family reunification remains a basic and valuable goal, but employment-based immigration and temporary-worker programs should be allowed to fluctuate with economic cycles, rather than being subject to rigid quotas. That means numbers should go up when the economy grows but fall during recessions.
Second, some argue that this formula repeats the mistake of the 1986 reform law, which did nothing to stop illegal immigration. But the circumstances now are very different. In 1990, the U.S. had fewer than 3,000 Border Patrol agents. Today, there are almost 20,000 agents, a near doubling in the last four years alone. The Department of Homeland Security is also investing heavily in surveillance and other technologies to increase control over the borders.
Electronic verification — which did not exist in the 1990s — will soon allow for quick and accurate verification that an employee is authorized to work here. Our task force recommends that employers who use these systems faithfully be rewarded, while companies that persist in hiring illegal immigrants should face tougher sanctions, including criminal penalties and the possibility of civil actions. This will substantially reduce the ability of illegal immigrants to find work in the U.S.
In part because of such measures, illegal immigration to the U.S. has fallen to its lowest levels since the mid-1970s. When the economy recovers, those numbers are likely to rise. But Congress and the administration have an opportunity now to develop and put in place an immigration strategy for the recovery by offering new legal paths for immigration and temporary work, along with tough enforcement of the law.
We urge Congress not to keep reprising the stale debates over enforcement-first vs. comprehensive reform. U.S. national interests will not be served unless both are priorities. Our group, which includes Democrats and Republicans, shows that a consensus is possible. It’s time to get on with the job.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. McLarty III are co-chairmen and Edward Alden is director of a Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy.