Immigration: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis?

by Scott London

National Issues Forums (NIF)Immigration has always been a subject of heated debate in America. But the issue reached a flash point after a controversial Arizona statute was passed in April 2010 taking a tough — some say too tough — stand on illegal immigration. The measure required that immigrants carry documentation at all times. It also gave law enforcement officers wide latitude to stop anyone they had “reasonable cause” to suspect was in the country illegally.

An injunction not to enforce the Arizona measure was filed by a federal judge just days before it took effect. But the new law had widespread public support and similar legislation is now being considered in other states. In Alabama, for example, lawmakers recently approved an anti-immigration bill that’s widely regarded as the toughest of its kind in the country.

The current debate has zeroed in on the millions of unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S. But the problems with our current system aren’t limited to people overstaying their visas or crossing into the country illegally. Consider that

  • More than half the crop pickers in America are undocumented, and across the country otherwise law-abiding citizens routinely hire maids, nannies, gardeners and construction workers without legal papers. Our economy now depends — to an extent it never has in the past — on the energy and hard work of people living here illegally.
  • Arbitrary visa caps have created enormous backlogs where family members have to wait up to 20 years to be reunited with relatives living in the U.S. Bureaucratic hurdles also make it hard for skilled workers from other countries to come and be part of America’s unique culture of entrepreneurship.
  • While we offer visas to students from around the world so they can earn degrees from our top universities, our laws effectively discourage them from putting their talents and energy to work right here in the U.S. Instead of training entrepreneurs to create jobs on our shores, we train our competition.

A New York Times/CBS poll conducted in April 2010 found that a vast majority of Americans think that the U.S. immigration system is in need of overhaul. While many of those surveyed said it needed “fundamental changes,” a full 44 percent insisted that it needed to be “completely rebuilt.” But the public remains divided about what kind of reform the country needs.

For a growing number of Americans, the immigration issue is a tangible and pressing one. Those who support immigration are often bent on helping or employing newcomers. Those in favor of restricting immigrants worry about the growing costs — both social and economic — of assimilating and aiding new arrivals. For their part, immigrants themselves typically want little more than a better life. Whose interests should be served? Can these often-conflicting interests be balanced?

These are some of the questions at the heart of a new issue book that I prepared for the National Issues Forums. It presents an in-depth look at the immigration issue. The idea is to promote dialogue and deliberation — the kind that spans ideological divides — about the need to overhaul our immigration system. For more information, you can get a copy (or download a Kindle version) at Amazon.com.