Building a U.S. Immigration System for the 21st Century
I think most of us agree our immigration system is broken and in need of major repair. It's been nearly 30 years since Congress modernized the U.S. immigration system. Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 gave a pathway to citizenship to 2.7 million undocumented people and penalized employers who knowingly hired those without a legal work permit. For the millions of people who were legalized through the law, it was life changing. But we're in need of an update.
The undocumented immigrant population has swelled from approximately one million in the 1970s to 11 million today, nearly three million of whom live in California. Our borders are buckling. Families can be separated for years. Our businesses are badly in need of high-skilled workers. And we have a severe backlog of visa applications.
In June, the Senate passed the largest comprehensive reform of our immigration laws in a generation. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the legislation will cut the deficit by nearly $135 billion over 10 years. Over the subsequent decade, an additional $700 billion in deficit reduction will occur. The CBO cites the positive benefits a larger workforce will have on the overall economy, both in terms of productivity gains and increasing the tax base. While I don't agree with everything that was included in the bill, I believe it will fix most of what is wrong with our current system. America is now waiting for the House to pass bipartisan, comprehensive legislation to fix our broken immigration laws.
Simply fixing only one aspect of our immigration system all but guarantees that we will fall short, much like the reforms of 1986 have over time. I believe a comprehensive approach is essential and should accomplish at least the following:
- Provide a timely pathway to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
- Modernize our visa programs for high-skilled workers
- Build on recent successes in securing U.S. borders and hold employers accountable for employing undocumented workers
- Eliminate backlogs that can cause people to wait for decades to get a green card
It is estimated that over 60 percent of undocumented immigrants have been in the United States for more than 10 years, and for many young immigrants the U.S. is the only country they have ever known. To suggest that these longtime members of our communities be deported or given some sort of second-class citizenship is wrong and economically short-sighted. Most undocumented immigrants are American in every way except in the eyes of our immigration laws—they study, work, contribute to their communities, love their families, and pay taxes. According to the Migration Policy Institute, two-thirds of immigrants over the age of five speak English well or very well. I believe, along with 87 percent of Americans in a recent poll, that undocumented immigrants should be given the chance to come out of the shadows and become citizens of the United States.
Our outdated visa programs for high-skilled workers represent a major missed opportunity for our country and our economic growth. Some of the most innovative Americans in our nation's history came here as immigrants, including many of our leaders in Silicon Valley. Today, 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, and half of the tech startups in Silicon Valley have a foreign-born founder. Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California-Davis, estimated that from 1990 to 2006, immigration increased the wages of native-born workers by 0.6 percent.
I believe we should be welcoming entrepreneurs and innovators with open arms, not sending them back to their home countries to compete against us. That means we must expand temporary visa programs for highly skilled workers. We should also create new green card categories for STEM graduates and entrepreneurs who create jobs, to ensure that we can attract and retain the world's most talented innovators. In some countries, the government itself offers startup funding and residency to attract innovators; in the U.S., we often turn these innovators away because our visa system is stuck in another era. This is wrong and must be fixed in any comprehensive legislation.
Today, the U.S. government spends more on immigration enforcement—$18 billion a year—than it does on all other criminal law enforcement combined. That is almost a quarter more than the total spending for the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals, and ATF. We have met or exceeded the border security "benchmarks" of previous immigration reform proposals so that today we have an unparalleled force of Border Patrol Agents, video surveillance systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, fencing, towers, and other assets. According to FBI Crime Index Statistics, violent crimes in southwest border states have dropped an average of 40 percent over the last two decades, and the top four big cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border states.
Most experts agree that capturing and turning back every illegal crosser on the 2,000 mile southern border is impossible, but I believe our recent success on the border, when combined with cracking down on employers who hire illegal workers, can continue to effectively and incrementally secure our borders for good.
Our current system forces immigrants from some countries to wait over 20 years for a green card, keeping families apart and creating a drag on our economy because high-skilled workers are forced to wait or move abroad to start their businesses. There are currently 4.3 million people in the family-based immigration backlog, nearly half of whom are from Asian countries because of archaic caps on how many immigrants can come from a particular country in any given year. Employment-based green cards also have country caps that disproportionately impact Asian countries and prevent innovators from gaining permanent residency in the U.S. These caps should be raised and backlogs cleared so that families can be reunited and immigrants can start creating jobs here in America.
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President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, "All of our people all over the country—except the pure-blooded Indians—are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, including even those who came over here on the Mayflower."
As a first-generation American, I'm one of millions of Americans whose parents immigrated to the U.S. as children in search of a better life for themselves. Now, Congress has an opportunity to extend that promise to millions of others and ensure that our country attracts the world's best and brightest for decades to come.
Anna G. Eshoo
Member of Congress