Political center key to immigration reform

Demonstrators protesting U.S. immigration policy at a Los Angeles rally. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

Our nation has procrastinated far too long on fixing our broken immigration system. In his State of the Union message, President Trump urged congress to address the issue. This follows efforts by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama to tackle the issue, all of which were rebuffed by congress. The framework proposed by President Trump is predictably being criticized by the partisan-pure tribes of congress.

What is needed is a solution that has support from the large and diverse political middle of America, represented by most members of the congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, urged on by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, has agreed to put a bill on the floor by Feb. 8, which will be open to amendments from both sides.

We have created a condition where more than 11 million undocumented workers now live in the shadows of our communities.

What is now required is for party leaders from both chambers and both sides of the aisle to set aside partisanship and allow their members to vote for what they believe best addresses the interests of the constituents they represent.

Congress should seek a solution that is consistent with our nation’s economic realities, our fundamental American values of fairness and compassion, our national security interests, and our deep-seated belief in the rule of law.

Let’s start with the economic realities. Economic growth is dependent on three ingredients: innovation, capital and labor. The population of native born 18-to-64-year-old workers in the U.S. has expanded by less than 0.2 percent per year over the last decade and is projected to expand by just 0.1 percent per year over the next decade.

Immigrant workers have been and will continue to be essential to U.S. economic growth, but one size does not fit all. The number of workers varies significantly from state to state based in part on the age of the population.

Each state should do a running analysis of its workforce needs to help inform national immigration policy.

Utah, for instance, has a much younger population than Maine. And there are significant differences in the workforce needs of each state. In California, for example, there is a shortage of computer scientists, but also of agricultural workers and home health aides, while in Nevada there is a shortage of hospitality workers. A sensible immigration policy must respond to these differences across states.

Each state should do a running analysis of its workforce needs to help inform national immigration policy. That’s what Canada does, and we should do the same.

This shortage of American-born workers is not new. In the absence of a sensible legal immigration system that addresses workforce needs, and in the presence of a virtually inexhaustible supply of people wishing to come to the U.S. to improve their economic prospects, we have created a condition where more than 11 million undocumented workers now live in the shadows of our communities. Many of them brought their young children, and most others have had children once they got here. It would be dishonest to deny that we were complicit in creating these circumstances, so the solution must be based in part on the trademark American values of fairness and compassion.

But as the size of the problem has grown, so has the resistance to solutions – and previous “reforms” did not yield the desired result of an adequate, fair and enforceable policy.  So now the challenge is to develop a comprehensive and durable solution.

The new legal immigration system must meet our workforce needs while protecting our sovereignty and national security, which in turn implies a national ability to control who enters our nation, under what conditions and for how long.

The absence of a sensible legal immigration system is endangering a foundational principle of our nation: the rule of law.

By acts of both omission and commission, America is now home to millions of people who are technically here illegally, and who are therefore easily subjected to abuse. And for either economic or moral reasons, or both, we now have cities and even states that are refusing to abide by federal law. This conflict endangers respect for our neighbors, as well as coherent federalism.

The issues are far too complex to be fully solved by Feb. 8, but begin we must.

Polls tell us that voters overwhelmingly support a solution that addresses the extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, along with the border protection and immigration reforms needed to obtain a bipartisan compromise.  Bipartisanship is essential to avoid the hyper-partisanship that leads to filibusters, so the solution will be sustainable no matter which party controls the White House or the Congress, and so that it will work in blue states and red ones. We can get to such a solution if party leaders on both sides simply allow members to vote on what their constituents are urging.

Further, the bipartisan coalition should see the Feb. 8 solution as a cornerstone for a more comprehensive solution to the full range of immigration issues. That comprehensive solution must produce a legal immigration system that serves our shared goals for economic prosperity and is consistent with America’s core values – from the rule of law to the embrace of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In the past, when Congress could not act in the long-term public interest, procedures like the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) were used to force an up-or-down vote on a proposal based on facts and reasonable trade-offs, but insulated from self-dealing. Congress does not need to create a commission as was done with the BRAC process. Leadership just needs to sanction a group of bi-cameral, bi-partisan members to continue to work on the remaining immigration issues and put forward a plan that other members of the house and senate can only vote up or down.

That work should be completed this year. The fact that 2018 is an election year cannot be an excuse for putting off yet again an issue that is so important to so many people, communities, enterprises and dreams. Congress needs to take up President Trump’s challenge and give him a bi-partisan deal to sign.

Ed’s Note: Lenny Mendonca and Pete Weber are co-chairs of California Forward, a bipartisan, nonprofit political reform group.  Mendonca, a Democrat, is a senior partner emeritus at McKinsey and Company, chair of New America and a third-generation Californian.  Weber, a Republican, who studied at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford before immigrating to the U.S. from Peru in 1968, is a retired corporate executive now serving on multiple non-profit boards.


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