By Frank Argote-Freyre
The 2020 Presidential campaign season is now upon us and with it will come the usual shrill dialogue over immigration reform. Once again, immigrants will be the target of endless attacks. When all is said and done, nothing will be accomplished and the immigration quagmire will continue.
For more than two decades immigration policy has been a riddle in search of an answer for Washington lawmakers. But, is the problem really so incomprehensible that a solution cannot be found?
The obstacles are not insurmountable from a policy standpoint. The key question is whether the two major political parties can set aside the political value of this volatile issue long enough to reach a solution. Immigration is a wonderful tool for riling up the base of both parties and politicians use it every chance they get.
The American public is treated to the same spectacle during every election cycle. The Republicans accuse the Democrats of advocating open borders, giving away the store to immigrants and favoring them over United States citizens. The Democrats accuse the Republicans of being heartless monsters threatening to tear down the Statue of Liberty.
The history of immigration to the United States is of keen interest to me as a Latin American history professor at Kean University where most of my students are immigrants or the children of immigrants. My teaching coupled with my recent selection as a “Public Scholar” by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, with the mission of lecturing across the state on the subject, have reawakened my interest in offering a solution to the immigration stalemate. My proposal draws heavily from Congressional compromise agreements reached in the U.S. Senate in 2006 and 2013 but never voted on by the House of Representatives.
To arrive at an immigration reform plan, it will be necessary to come to some realistic conclusions.
First, there is no way to deport the 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the nation. Even if one were inclined to do so, it would cost billions of dollars and tie down law enforcement on futile goose chases looking for people, most of whom are hard-working and contribute to our society.
Second, there is no way to hermetically seal our borders. A 2,000-mile wall will not do the job. Study after study shows that most folks who come to the United States fly in illegally and overstay their visas. Walls are enormously expensive to build and must be maintained over time. There is no example in history of a 2,000-mile wall keeping people out. If underlying economic issues are not addressed, people will swim around it, climb over it, or dig under it.
What will work?
- I suggest four policy changes to address the current immigration crisis. Create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living here in a law-abiding fashion. There is no reason for these folks to remain in the shadows any longer. They will not leave, and we don’t have the capacity or the sufficient moral decay to deport them all. Charge them the appropriate fees, and let us resolve this issue once and for all. This will be tough medicine for anti-immigrant foes to swallow.
- Establish a comprehensive worker visa program so industries can apply for foreign workers to fill shortages in the labor force, particularly in the agricultural sector. A properly regulated program where workers come in for a set amount of time, are guaranteed safe working and living conditions, and then go back to their countries of origin, is very much in need. There should be generous provisions for those who may wish to resettle here. There are currently efforts to recruit highly trained professionals such as engineers, doctors and nurses, but there needs to be a place in our land for laborers who want to build a new life. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”
- We need to develop an economic development plan to assist the countries of Central America modeled on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the World War II. This is not some liberal humanitarian proposal, although there is nothing wrong with being humane. If we were to invest in those societies and raise their standards of living, the people there will be less likely to want to come here.
- There needs to be some measures taken to insure this doesn’t happen again. This includes, among other things, the nationwide expansion of the federal E-Verify system to mandate that all employers check employee credentials against a national database to determine work eligibility. Additional border enforcement will also be required. This will be hard for pro-immigrant advocates and segments of the business community to accept.
So, as you listen to the political back and forth on immigration throughout this campaign season, do not believe those who tell you this problem cannot be solved. Do not believe those that argue for dramatic, one-sided solutions to the issue. There is the outline of a plan out there. It will take political will and compromise to achieve it.
No one is going to get everything they want. Until everyone recognizes this, there will be no solution.
Frank Argote-Freyre, Ph.D, is a history professor at Kean University. He is also a former congressional press secretary, an expert on U.S.-Cuba relations and was a member of the Electoral College during the 2012 presidential election.
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