We need to fix America’s well-worn ‘welcome mat’

They say history has a way of repeating itself. That certainly came true in June when the U.S. Senate approved a sweeping reform bill to revamp the nation’s immigration laws. Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate failed to learn from the mistakes created by the 1986 overhaul.

Consider the 1986 bill that President Reagan signed into law. 

At that time, about three million people who were living in the country illegally were granted citizenship. 

Today, 27 years later, the U.S. estimates 11 million undocumented immigrants are living here.

What should that tell us? It says that the 1986 law failed to stem the flow of illegal immigration. It sent the wrong signal by granting legal status to millions while ignoring the need to secure the border.  It gave the green light to millions of others that it was okay to break our laws because enforcement wouldn’t be taken seriously. 

I voted for the 1986 law. And by looking through the rear-view mirror, I don’t need a crystal ball to tell me what would happen on the road ahead if we repeat the mistakes of the past.  I saw how legalizing before securing our borders turned out. It turned America’s time-honored welcome mat into a timeworn doormat.

America’s immigration system is broken. It’s time to fix it so that a legal flow of immigration can help the economy and bolster areas of the workforce that are short of workers, from low-skilled to high-tech workers. But, immigration laws should not come at the expense of American workers or cause them to be disadvantaged, displaced or underpaid. Rooting out fraud and abuse from many of our visa programs should be a priority. 

We need to secure how people enter the United States through legal channels. For instance, it makes sense to allow foreign students who have been trained and educated on U.S. soil to remain here.  We need to enact solutions that ensure we keep those highly skilled and sought after students here.  At the same time, we need to ensure that we protect American students and encourage them to explore Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.  We also need to close any loopholes with the student visa process in order to protect our national security.

Unfortunately, the bill passed by the U.S. Senate won’t fix what’s broken and is chock-full of loopholes that make the legalization system far from ideal.

Thankfully our system of self-government protects representation of, by and for the people with a bicameral Congress. Now the U.S. House of Representatives has a chance to get it right. 

Here’s what I’d like to see:

• border security firstand its verification by elected and accountable members of Congress, not the federal bureaucracy or administration;

• meaningful interior enforcement that empowers federal, state and local authorities;  

• stronger laws to deter criminal offenses, including identity theft and gang-related activity; and,

• policy to ensure qualified Americans have the first opportunity at U.S. jobs.

Finally, as a taxpayer watchdog, I cannot support a bill that does what Congress seems to do best: throw taxpayers’ money at the problem without actually solving the problem. Originally, the bill’s price tag started at $6.5 billion. At final passage, the Senate sponsors jacked that up to $46.3 billion, essentially to win support. And, in the end, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that the bill would only reduce illegal immigration by one third to one half.

For more than 200 years, immigrants have looked to America’s shores as the beacon of hope, freedom and opportunity. Immigration has played a central role in the social, cultural and economic fabric of our communities and neighborhoods for generation after generation.

That’s why it’s so important for Congress to fix America’s welcome mat. We can learn from the lessons. We need immigration laws in place that welcome law-abiding immigrants to share their entrepreneurial spirit, build better lives for themselves, and help make America a better place for generations to come.

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