By David Gushee
A coalition of law-enforcement, labor, policy, religious and other groups is gearing up for a major push for comprehensive immigration reform this spring. Serious behind-the-scenes efforts are underway to secure broad and bipartisan sponsorship for new immigration-reform legislation, which has been introduced in the House but not yet in the Senate. A massive rally is planned on the National Mall in Washington for March 21.
It has been three years since the last serious push for immigration reform failed, unexpectedly, in Congress. Some may think that, with the apparent gridlock in Washington, this is not an auspicious time to push anything as significant as immigration reform. I would instead argue that this is a solvable problem and one on which bipartisan cooperation is already happening. Bipartisan success on this issue could be translated into good will mobilized for other issues.
Current approaches to immigration reform begin with the recognition that our current system is broken. At least 12 million illegal immigrants are already here. Their presence signals that our borders are still not secure, which is frightening and totally unacceptable. We have to know who is in our country and where they are.
The availability of a massive underground labor pool has a distorting effect on the economy. Employers that choose to exploit this labor market gain an unfair competitive advantage over other employers who play by the rules. Hungry immigrants needing work will obviously have to take whatever is offered them, leading to their own exploitation and the unfair disadvantaging of American workers who cannot compete in such a market.
Moving millions of workers out of the shadows and into the light would end this black-market economy. It would restore fairness to this part of the labor market and would also increase tax revenues. To the extent that these immigrant workers would gain health insurance, it would also reduce the financial pressure on hospitals and emergency rooms that now provide unreimbursed care in emergency situations. It would also lead to currently illegal immigrants paying for other social services that they now receive at the expense of legal taxpayers.
Immigration-law enforcement officials face an impossible situation. They do not have adequate budgets to even begin to try to find, investigate, incarcerate and deport large numbers of illegal immigrants. And when they do raid homes and businesses they end up being responsible for dividing families and depriving them of their breadwinners. It just doesn’t seem like America when children wait fearfully at home for fathers and mothers who have been locked up during the day and are heading for deportation.
Some voices call for just shipping all the illegal immigrants back where they came from. This is inconceivable and impossible. Consider this fact: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin forcibly deported over six million people during his reign of terror. Deportation advocates are asking the United States government to find and deport twice as many. Any serious effort to do this would be outrageously expensive, a public-relations disaster, and a serious violation of our values.
If Stalinesque deportations are not an option, and doing nothing is not an option, we really have no choice but to undertake some kind of immigration reform along the lines being considered in Congress. It would invite those hiding uneasily in the shadows of America to come out and register their presence. Criminal background checks would weed out those whose behavior demonstrates that they should not stay here. Legalization would include some kind of requirement not just of paying taxes going forward, but also a requirement to pay extra taxes for a period of five years or so to help recompense the nation for their time here.
Greater realism related to the challenge of integrating millions of non-English-speaking immigrants has also taken hold. Current proposals are looking seriously at requiring those seeking naturalization to demonstrate some kind of English-language proficiency before they are granted citizenship. Surely one of the contributions that the churches should make in such a situation will be to offer our massive resources for free English-language instruction.
Border security also must be addressed. Resolving the status of the millions of illegal immigrants already here must be undertaken in tandem with enhanced border security at every point — our northern and southern borders; our ports; and, of course, our airplanes.
Notice that this approach to immigration reform is both principled and practical. It reflects both our national interests and our national values, and ought to be able to gain Christian support. Let’s pass immigration reform this year.