Op Ed: An undignified approach to immigration reform

By Gus West

Washington, DC [CapitalWirePR] December 22, 2012 – Immigration reform has surged to the top of the congressional agenda in the aftermath of the election, when Latinos voted in unprecedented numbers. The House of Representatives considered immigration legislation recently, while Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have promised to lead the charge in the upper body.

The plans on offer are unacceptable, as they’d only provide an onerous path to citizenship for a chosen few. Our leaders must instead recognize the contributions that the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants make – and invite them to formally join our nation’s civic life with some dignity.

The House approach would provide 55,000 green cards each year to foreigners with math or science expertise. But it would do so by scrapping the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, which admits the same number of people from countries with low immigration rates to the United States.

The House bill would also allow permanent residents’ family members to come to the United States a year after applying for green cards themselves. They could finish waiting for their green cards, a process that can stretch as long as six years.

The House bill won’t increase the number of green cards, nor will it hand them out any faster. Legislation that does not actually increase the number of documented immigrants hardly amounts to real reform.

Schumer and Graham have vowed to pick up the immigration debate where they left off in 2010.

They’ve prioritized border security above all else. As Graham put it, «you do nothing until you secure the border.»

But the focus on border security isn’t warranted. According to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center, «the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed.»

Meanwhile, in his first term, President Barack Obama presided over a record number of deportations – 1.4 million through July 2012. By that standard, America’s immigration policy has never been harsher.

Graham and Schumer have also called for an English-language requirement. As the former said during a recent appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, «they can’t stay unless they learn our language.»

The basis for requiring English proficiency from immigrants is shaky at best.

For starters, the United States does not have an official language. Further, America has a history of helping those who do not speak English proficiently. Election ballots are printed in several languages in various parts of the country. And a 12-year-old executive order requires all federal agencies to implement reforms that enable those with limited English proficiency to gain access to federal services.

An English-language requirement would be anathema to America’s tradition of pluralism and tolerance.

Schumer and Graham also want to crack down on those who employ undocumented immigrants. But these workers play an indispensible role in the economy. Indeed, states that have enacted draconian immigration laws have seen their economic performance plummet.

By forcing thousands of undocumented workers to flee, Alabama’s harsh immigration measures have dealt a $40 million blow to its economy, according to the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research. Georgia’s immigration reforms cost farmers an estimated $140 million in lost labor.

To fix our broken immigration system, Congress must permit undocumented immigrants to emerge from the shadows of society – and to work toward becoming citizens of this great nation. Unfortunately, the current House and Senate approaches will accomplish neither goal.

Gus West is Board Chair and President of The Hispanic Institute.

This opinion piece was also carried in the Denver Post today.

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