Our hearts were broken,” a young woman wrote after the Dream Act did not muster enough votes to defeat a Senate filibuster in the lame duck session of the 111th Congress. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would have provided legal status to young people brought into the United States as children by their parents. She was one of thousands of “dreamers” across the country who had advocated what is still a dream deferred. “We are decent and hard-working human beings,” she said, “who have done nothing more than study and work for our families and communities.”
It has been a dispiriting five-year period for immigrants and their children. In addition to the Dream Act setback last May, other legislation to reform the outdated U.S. immigration system and to allow certain unauthorized immigrants to earn the right to remain has failed in successive sessions of Congress.
While legislators still decry uncontrolled borders, illegal crossings have actually fallen to numbers not seen since the early 1970s. By virtually all measurements, immigration enforcement has reached historic levels, including total deportations (400,000 a year) and prosecutions for immigration-related offenses (roughly 90,000 a year). State and local governments have enacted laws that make it more difficult for unauthorized persons and their families to rent apartments, to work and to call the police. Many states are considering legislation that seeks to deny not only citizenship to the U.S.-born children of unauthorized parents but public education; some would make it a crime for unauthorized immigrants to hold a paid job and to be “out of status.” Federal and state budget shortfalls threaten programs that help to integrate the nation’s immigrants and their children.
The volume and the coarseness of the immigration debate have also intensified. For supporters of immigration reform, these trends increase the importance of laying the groundwork today for just and coherent policies. The first step toward that goal is to identify the facts and core principles that should guide policies toward immigrants and their children.
Fix Legal Immigration First
The United States must reform its immigration system, and the most critical priority should be to fix the system of legal immigration. The current system fails to meet the nation’s economic and labor market needs; it also fails to reunify families in a timely manner. This system forces immigrants to make wrenching choices—to risk their lives to cross the border illegally to take available jobs or to remain at home, unable to support their families. Others must decide whether to remain in the United States while waiting for a family-based visa to become available or to leave the country and face long-term separation from their families.
Many of these problems can be traced to the nation’s last large-scale “legalization” bill, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That legislation reduced the U.S. unauthorized population to between 1.8 million and 3 million persons. The number of unauthorized immigrants rose dramatically, however, through the 1990s and through most of the 2000s, peaking at more than 12 million in 2007. While this growth is often attributed to the failure to enforce the 1986 reform’s employer verification provisions, the re-emergence of a large unauthorized population resulted primarily from the act’s failure to address adequately family reunification needs and to reflect the supply and demand characteristics of the nation’s labor market.
The reform package of 1986 laid the groundwork for a large unauthorized population by failing to provide legal status to family members of the Control Act’s beneficiaries, who had to wait to become lawful permanent residents before they could petition for visas for their close family members. The surge of petitions, combined with the numerical limits on family-based visa categories and per-country quotas, led to multiyear visa backlogs. The U.S. Department of State estimates that 3.4 million people whose family-based visa petitions have been approved are currently waiting in line to receive their visas. While the unauthorized are often characterized as scofflaws who seek to “jump” the visa queue, in fact many have followed the law and have waited for their visas for years.
The increase of unauthorized immigrants also reflected the supply-and-demand characteristics of the nation’s labor market. As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy argued in 2009, the fact that “for much of this decade roughly 800,000 migrants could come to the United States illegally each year and find jobs is a clear indicator that the legal migration system has not remotely reflected market demand.” During the peak years of illegal migration, migrants risked their lives to come (more than one died per day), then found work (92 percent of unauthorized men worked in 2007). Yet the United States reserves only 5,000 permanent visas each year for “unskilled” workers, and no country, including Mexico, can receive more than 7 percent of the worldwide quota of visas. This should be changed.
Despite the rapid changes in the world economy, the United States has not meaningfully altered its legal immigration system for more than 20 years and has not overhauled it since 1965. In 2006 a taskforce of the Migration Policy Institute recommended the creation of a standing commission on immigration and labor markets to provide Congress and the president with the information needed to set immigration levels in response to market forces, in boom times and in bust. Congress has neglected to act on this idea.
Since its founding, the United States has been a refuge for the world’s persecuted and dispossessed. It has resettled nearly 3 million refugees from abroad since 1975 and should remain a beacon of hope to refugees. Despite refugee admissions delays caused by overlapping security checks, the United States still resettles more refugees (75,000 to 80,000 in recent years) than all other developed nations combined.
The beacon is flickering. Other U.S. protection programs have eroded, particularly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The U.S. system of political asylum, for example, rests on the ability of persons fleeing persecution and violence to reach U.S. territory, a feat that has become increasingly difficult. Post-9/11 immigration-related security measures, combined with U.S. interdiction policies, prevent unknown numbers of would-be asylum-seekers from reaching the United States each year. The expansion of security-related grounds for inadmissibility has led to the exclusion of thousands of refugees and to delays and denials in hundreds of asylum cases. The U.S. refugee system needs to ensure that security-related concerns do not prevent legitimate applicants from gaining asylum.
Confronting the New Nativism
Some Americans believe that citizenship should depend on characteristics that persons cannot change or should not have to change, like national origin, race, ethnicity or religion. Others hold that membership should depend on a shared commitment to political institutions and to civic ideals like freedom, equality, human rights, liberty, justice and opportunity. In this latter view, the nation’s response to immigrants who embrace and embody these values should be generous. President George W. Bush spoke from this tradition in his first inaugural speech, claiming that something deeper than citizenship connects Americans. “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil,” he said, but it has been “bound by ideals that move us beyond our background and lift us above our interests.” These ideals are that “everyone belongs,” “everyone deserves a chance” and “no insignificant person was ever born.”
Yet these ideals are threatened by proposals that would punish innocent children for the actions of their parents and that would treat the 14th Amendment (1868) as an immigration loophole. The 14th Amendment reversed the infamous Dred Scott decision, which held that the descendants of slaves could never be citizens of the United States. The amendment provides that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” are citizens of the United States and of the states in which they reside. As its plain language, its legislative history and subsequent Supreme Court decisions have made clear, the 14th Amendment applies to all children born in the United States, with a few narrow exceptions. It is unclear how resurrecting Dred Scott—applying it to a vulnerable group of children and creating a permanently “illegal” class of persons—advances the national interest or serves an ethic of life.
There are 73 million immigrants and children of immigrants in the United States. Immigration policy governs who can come, who can stay and who has to leave. But the United States lacks a well-coordinated integration policy. Legal status is critical to integration, but it is only one step in the journey, not the destination. Language skills, education and workforce training are key elements in any integration program.
The Migration Policy Institute has proposed a federal effort to expand, coordinate and support federal, state and local integration efforts and to bring the lessons of these programs to bear on the development of U.S. immigration policy. Such an initiative would benefit immigrants, the communities in which they settle and our nation as a whole. Of course, the government alone will not be able to facilitate immigrant integration. People of faith and civil society have a moral responsibility to reach out to newcomers, both to ensure that they can participate fully in our society as a matter of social justice and to welcome them as persons (Lv. 19:33-34).
In Tucson, Ariz., there is a faith community that places water in the desert so that migrants do not perish; the members call themselves “Good Samaritans.” A protestor outside their church has worn a sign that reads “Good Samaritan, Bad American.” Extreme and hateful rhetoric—and public receptivity to it—has haunted the immigration debate in recent years.
Myths persist about the facts and the people behind the immigration debate. In such times, the Christian faith can remind us of important truths and highlight the virtues of hospitality and justice as well as the imperative to treat migrants as our brothers and sisters. Faith can alert us to the human tendency to scapegoat others without recognizing our own faults and shortcomings. It can even show us how a misguided sense of patriotism conflicts with Christianity’s deepest values. Faith reminds us that through God’s grace we are the recipients of the greatest of all amnesties.
Christian faith can also caution us against punishing young people for the transgressions and sacrifices of their parents.
“We are tired of being told to hide and wait,” wrote the young dreamer. “We believe with all our hearts that a change is possible and urgently needed. And that is what we are fighting for, fighting without fear and without apologies.”