When Donald Trump announced his plans to build a wall and halt illegal immigration in his 2016 presidential campaign, many dismissed him as a bigot while others rallied behind him. Wherever you stood on this issue, it was clear that politicians had kicked this can so far down the road that a candidate like Trump was able to easily distinguish himself from the establishment.
Once upon a time, the Statue of Liberty greeted brave and vulnerable souls that sought refuge in America. Today, those who seek refuge are greeted not by Lady Liberty but by a monstrous problem called the American immigration system. People no longer believe in our immigration laws. In fact, what we think of as the immigration system is clearly two systems: the legal immigration system and the illegal immigration system. Both are fundamentally flawed and offer little promise for the future.
In the legal system, an immigrant can wait anywhere from a few months to 12 or 15 years to come to the United States due to a backlog of over 700,000 cases. The backlog is a result of Congress’s limit on the number of visas that can be issued annually, an increase in green card applications and the shortage of immigration judges to review these cases. In the illegal system, an immigrant has no guarantee they will make it to the United States, yet this is more promising than going to an American embassy. People have so little faith in the American immigration system that they are willing to pay smugglers thousands of dollars and risk their lives to come here. The common denominator: lack of trust in the government’s ability to regulate immigration.
The United States must regain control of its borders and its immigration system for the sake of America’s future and the lives of all immigrants. Allowing illegal immigration to continue is synonymous with allowing people to risk their lives to come here. It is synonymous with allowing some parents to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to bring their children here. If we truly care about these migrant children, then we are responsible for providing alternatives to illegal immigration. Erecting a wall, as Trump has proposed, will not work because migrants will find ways to physically avoid the wall, and it will not fix the broken legal immigration system. Opening our borders, as some on the left have proposed, will also not work because it does not provide a regulated and sustainable flow of immigrants. The consolidation of the immigration system will not be achieved by erecting walls or opening borders, but rather by addressing the fundamental flaws of both legal and illegal immigration. This will require concessions from political parties and from immigrant rights organizations, but a new system can be built through reform, security and amnesty.
First, new legislation must be enacted to reform the legal immigration system in order to renew the relationship between America and those who choose to come here. Reform should make the system fair, expedited and responsive to the demands of the 21st century. This means expanding our system so that there are more opportunities to migrate in a legal and secure manner. The United States currently grants permanent residency status (green cards) to around one million people each year–more than any other nation in the world. A strong system will discourage illegal immigration and make people believe in our laws again. Second, the United States must ensure its borders are respected so that its citizens know the immigration system is not compromising national security. This can be achieved through diplomatic cooperation with Mexico to add more border patrol agents, surveillance systems and adequate ports of entry between the two nations. A more regional (and perhaps more optimistic) approach would go as far as cooperating with the Northern Triangle countries to deter the flow of drugs to our southern border. Third, the United States must provide amnesty for the millions of people who broke its immigration laws. This does not mean that people will go unpunished as they will have to pay fees and taxes and submit to extensive background checks in order to change their immigration status. Furthermore, they will wait at the back of the line and priority will be given to immigrants entering via the new legal immigration system.
Ultimately, the legal and illegal immigration systems we have created will collapse because they are unsustainable. We have the unique opportunity to decide what kind of country we want so we can create common-sense laws. By adopting the three-phase approach of reform, security and amnesty, we can finally incorporate all aspects of immigration into one holistic solution.
Michael Hernandez is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org