An underreported news item showing that approvals for U.S. citizenship applications have reached a five-year high proves America isn’t anti-immigrant.
Nor was it anti-immigrant at the beginning of my time in Congress when I represented 300 miles of the Texas-Mexico border. In 1994, a Democrat-led commission made many of the same recommendations on immigration reform the Trump administration is now making — and I included some in my own legislation.
What has changed since then is, regrettably, immigration has become precisely what the iconic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas said it shouldn’t be: partisan and political. Immigration, she said “like foreign policy, ought to be a place where the national interest comes first, last, and always.”
America wants — and needs — immigrants who wish to come here, work hard, build better lives for their families and contribute to society.
But our broken immigration system, with its misplaced priorities and invitation to lawlessness, must be fixed. It begins by reordering our priorities. A fair, workable immigration system gives preference to much-needed skills and education in addition to family relations.
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We must end the de facto amnesty offered by a system that fails to enforce our laws consistently. And we must end the underground market for labor by instituting a functioning guest worker program. The result will put American economic interests and those of our workers first, and boost our economy by ensuring entrepreneurship, job creation and innovation are rewarded.
Let’s take these items one-by-one.
Distant relations shouldn't get the same priority as immediate family members
Currently, most — 68% — of legal immigrants come here because a relative is already here. It’s not just parents and children; often it’s sibling and his or her spouse who then bring in extended family members of their own who might not even know the legal immigrant in the United States. Another 4% have their applications approved in a lottery system that has no regard for the skills or jobs America needs.
President Trump’s plan would move to a predominantly merit-based point system, increasing the number of immigrants from 12% to 57% who possess the skills and education needed to improve our economy. This number is in line with other developed nations.
The plan doesn’t do away with provisions that allow legal immigrants to bring in immediate family members (they “go right to the front of the line,” as President Trump says), but it does significantly shift the priority from extended family connections to what each individual can contribute to the prosperity of our country.
Fixing legal immigration pathways will only solve half the equation. We must also address the root of what’s wrong with our immigration system: non-enforcement.
Current immigration laws must be enforced
Human traffickers know that in the present system, overwhelmed to the point of breaking, the people they bring to the United States will be allowed in, even if caught.
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We must also do a better job of determining which applicants for asylum are fleeing real threats, and which are simply applying for economic reasons. America must remain welcoming, but we cannot support the poor of the entire world.
Fixing immigration will mean reforming a system that hurts both immigrants and U.S.-born workers. Our current low unemployment rate and high number of job openings combine to provide a powerful temptation for employers to fill jobs with any workers they can find. As long as businesses are allowed to exploit illegal labor, Americans and other legal workers cannot adequately compete for those jobs.
A truly functioning and properly enforced guest worker program would incentivize employers to fill these jobs lawfully, increase costs for hiring illegal workers and shut down the dangerous and economically disastrous black market for labor in this country.
The end result of real immigration reform would be a stronger America. After all, immigrants have a strong entrepreneurial streak and help create jobs. Their taxes go into the US coffers, and their participation in the lives of our communities further enrich us.
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As Congresswoman Jordan said in testifying about her commission’s study of immigration reform, “We are a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law.”
Immigration reform is not anti-immigrant, and the Trump administration’s solutions are reasonable and compassionate. We must work together to fulfill that vision. We can have both: Immigration and the rule of law.
Former Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and its immigration subcommittee. He’s a senior fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: President Trump's 'zero tolerance' immigration policy isn't anti-immigrant