Last year, apparent progress on immigration ran into the never-ending standstill: "How do we address the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States?"
Emotions run high. Political responses are commonly quick, and substantive discussion is rare. When the "gang of eight" crafted a solution, some senators suffered hits. Polarization forced retreat back to established lines, possibly pushing reform to 2015.
Shouldn’t we approach divisive issues collaboratively? How can we implement a functioning immigration system?
Certainly a key to effective reform lies in resolving the situation of the 11.7 million: not only because we’re dealing with real people, real lives, and broken laws, but also because the entire immigration system must rest on a proper balance of rule of law, humanity, accountability, closing loopholes and flexibility. We need a sustainable, symbiotic immigration system for those seeking refuge and opportunity.
We can solve this not by splitting a pie among interest groups but by talking honestly about legalization and citizenship.
Most concede that mass deportations would be impractical and inhumane. Most also want to avoid repeating the 1986 amnesty that incentivized breaking the law. But some label as amnesty any leniency short of self-deportation forced by harsh enforcement. Let’s recognize that the 1986 amnesty included enforcement. The problem was that it didn’t provide for a workable immigrant or non-immigrant visa system for lesser-skilled workers. This poor mismatch of harsh law with wink-and-nod enforcement encouraged workers to come here illegally. Law then isolated them in the shadows, despite their economic and societal contributions. While they broke the law, we, too, need to accept some responsibility.
Giving people a second chance, with penalties and a long road, isn’t amnesty. This approach would be problematic if we rewarded those who broke the law to the exclusion of others. So why not provide a path to legalization without being harsh?
A more open non-immigrant or immigrant visa category would not be unprecedented, certainly not given the seemingly intractable circumstances. Those who qualify could immediately apply for basic legalization. Let’s not repeat the problem by continuing to have non-existent lines for most people while giving legalization only to a few.
While we need not automatically or immediately grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants, a path to legalization, without a possibility of citizenship, isn’t enough. Let’s reform immigration categories to allow honorable, committed non-immigrants eventually to earn adjustment of their status to immigrant. Many people aren’t interested in becoming citizens.
They just want to be able to safely go back and forth from their home country to work when there’s opportunity, without fear. But let’s give those who have made, or plan to make, this country their home a way for them to integrate and become responsible, full participants in our communities.
Perhaps the "gang of eight" was on to something. Cool heads, proper motives, honest dialogue and a few adjustments could lead to a long-awaited solution. Voters should urge Congress to break the standstill.
Mark Alvarez is an attorney, immigration specialist for Telemundo Utah and host of ‘Sin Rodeos.’ Tiani Xochitl Coleman has practiced immigration law pro bono and is past chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party.
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