Why we need immigration reform now

Aug. 29, 2009 at 3:29 a.m.

Though they have lived in the United States for decades and have a U.S. citizen child with special needs, the Galvez family is struggling through miles of red tape and coping with myriad bureaucratic nightmares to keep their family together.

The Department of Homeland Security - charged with keeping America safe from terrorism - continues to focus its efforts on deporting undocumented students like Herta Llusho, an electrical engineering college student who came to the United States as a child and is currently fighting deportation orders. How can ripping families apart and denying our country of its future economic generators possibly be sound domestic policy?

Our immigration system has become so dysfunctional that our children and most vulnerable members of society are now prime targets for detention and deportation. The status quo in which about 12 million people in the United States are living in fear of being detained and deported despite their ties and commitment to the country they now call home is no longer tenable. At a time when we are all feeling the impact of a weakened economy, a broad and just immigration reform package is necessary and more important than ever before. To achieve this, Secretary Janet Napolitano, head of DHS, must lead the administration's efforts for comprehensive immigration reform.

How can the administration tackle something as Byzantine as immigration reform while dealing with a deflated economy? The answer is simple: Show leadership to help cut through the scare tactics and partisan hyperbole, and focus on what will improve American financial and communal security. Comprehensive immigration reform that acknowledges the problems with the current system and provides a practical solution is the only way we will successfully integrate the millions of people who are contributing to our society and want to do so openly.

Reform should create a path toward citizenship for those who pay taxes and are productive members of society. Providing a generous legalization program for the men and women currently living in fear of deportation would benefit all of our communities, as newly legalized immigrants will finally become full participants. Current immigration laws rip families apart, even though countless studies and common sense show that productivity increases when workers have a healthy familial support system. The legalization program must have strong confidentiality provisions encouraging people to come forward and trust the government.

In order for immigration reform to work this time, any package also must retain the need for family reunification as a core value. We must reduce family visa backlogs so that a Mexican mother trying to reunite with her adult son would not have to wait an estimated 18 years for his visa to be processed. If a reasonable number of visas for family members are not provided, human nature dictates that people will find other ways to join loved ones.

The current temporary worker visa program also needs to be reassessed, particularly for workers who suffer the greatest level of exploitation at the hands of transnational recruiting companies and abusive employers. Lawmakers need to realistically assess the number of work-related visas we distribute as well as the method in which they are attained. Temporary workers should not be tied to one employer and should have a path to citizenship if they are committed to making the United States their new home. They should have the same labor rights as U.S. citizens as well as the opportunity to improve their working conditions.

Instead of more I-9 audits and deputizing local police to enforce immigration laws as Secretary Napolitano is promoting, the best way to deter abusive employers from hiring undocumented workers is to enhance workers' rights. A well-known dirty secret is that lax enforcement of labor laws has created a permissive climate in which unscrupulous employers hire undocumented workers and threaten them with deportation if they complain about their abusive working conditions.

Enforcement of the many labor and employment violations and holding employers accountable will take away their financial incentives to break the law as well as improve labor conditions for all workers.

Policymakers have acknowledged that the immigration system is broken.

It is time for Secretary Napolitano to stop pushing immigrants further underground by focusing on flawed enforcement policies.

Instead, she should work with Congress on integrating immigrants and enhancing the economic security of this country by reforming the immigration system to reflect what lured families like mine to this country: the opportunity to work hard, get an education, prove oneself, contribute to improving this great nation and achieve the American Dream.

Marielena Hincapié is Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center, an organization dedicated to promoting the rights of low income immigrants.



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