As the son of an immigrant who is now buried at Arlington, I know that the immigrant story is the story of America. Our immigrant heritage is a rich seam in our country’s history and adds much promise to our collective future. So many immigrants arrived in this country with nothing, and yet, through hard work and perseverance, saw their children become doctors, machinists, scientists, journalists, artists, welders, teachers, engineers — and even three-star admirals. No one doubts that our current immigration system is broken. But it will not be fixed by breaking it even further, which seems to be the current administration’s approach. It can only be fixed through comprehensive reform.
Our immigration system is in dire need of reform. Congress’ failure over recent decades to pass a comprehensive set of reforms is harming our nation — turning away skilled workers and innovators from our shores; limiting law enforcement’s ability to strengthen border security; keeping millions of hard-working immigrants living in the shadows; subjecting uncounted thousands of asylum-seekers and migrants to inhumane and degrading treatment; preventing family unifications; and, in far too many cases, tearing infants and children from the arms of their parents. It is beyond time for the government to take positive action.
But instead of finding policy fixes that most people could support, loud factions in our two major political parties have too often taken extreme positions — one side wants to round up and deport every undocumented immigrant in the country and build a wall along the whole southern border, while the other advocates freely granting amnesty and citizenship to 11 million undocumented people and a few even call for more-or-less open borders. Neither approach is practical or consistent with our values. Finding and deporting 11 million people hasn’t worked, nor will it, and even trying involves ripping people them away from their U.S. citizen children (approximately 4 million of them). Building a wall as “the solution” will simply not work — for reasons I outline further below. And any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants must include stringent requirements.
Concerning the border, we need to appreciate that there are legitimate national security concerns involved. When I headed the Navy’s anti-terrorism unit and later as a Congressman on the Armed Services Committee, I learned the details of how al-Qaeda terrorists in West Africa were increasingly funded by working with drug traffickers based in South America, whose networks often reach well into the United States and Europe. Border security must not only about preventing illegal immigration, but about fighting the illegal drug trade, illicit arms smuggling, human trafficking, and other transnational dangers to our domestic security and values. But this does not mean building an impractical wall across the entire border. Rather, it means smart measures, such as improved unmanned vehicles and motion detectors, as well as more staffing and better technology at border crossing stations — since most illicit trafficking of drugs, humans, and weapons, actually happens right under the noses of our border security agents, passing through our regular border crossings and other official ports of entry.
On creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here, I do believe we must approach the situation with compassion — for almost all these immigrants are good neighbors, productive members of society, and often have children or other family members who are valued American citizens — but we must also recognize that there are millions of people around the world who want a chance to become Americans but have applied through the legal paths available to them and are still waiting for their turn. I favor creating stringent requirements for undocumented immigrants to earn a path to citizenship, including a willingness to pay back taxes and fees, an ability to pass criminal background checks with flying colors, proof of gainful employment, and basic English language capabilities.
At the end of the day, we need immigrants because since 1970 our birthrate alone has not been sufficient to replace all those who pass away each year in America. If it were not for immigrants, America would have a declining population. And now with the baby boomer generation growing older and retiring at a rapid rate, our workforce needs immigrants if we are to grow our economy and not stagnate. Without immigration, we would be in a population death spiral like Japan, who’s non-immigration policy has meant anemic economic growth for the past two decades — and it will only get worse. We need immigration to keep our country strong.
Jobs in fields related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) drive our economy forward and have long helped America to be the most powerful country in the world. Yet our companies and non-profits that hire STEM workers face a persistent shortage of qualified workers. According to one recent study, in 2016 there were 13 job postings for every one unemployed worker with relevant STEM training. Clearly this situation is stifling to innovation and advancement for American industry. An obvious long-term solution is to better prepare American students for these jobs of the future, but the only solution in the meantime is to make sure we can attract and retain skilled workers from around the world.
In order to fill the dangerous shortage of STEM workers, we must update our visa system. Currently, two-thirds of immigration visas go to family members of US citizens and legal permanent residents, while many skilled immigrants are left looking for other opportunities. While I believe our system must always endeavor to preserve individual family units, we should also take reasonable steps to bring in more skilled workers to fill the jobs our economy desperately needs filled. As a first step, we should no longer have a cap on the number of visas we give to foreign-born students who have earned advanced STEM degrees at American universities, and we should create an expedited path to full citizenship for these workers. Such immigrants have already formed bonds within our communities, they have proven themselves adept enough in the English language to graduate from an American school, and they possess skills our companies and our countries need. It makes no sense to force them to return to the country of their birth or find another country.
In fact, data shows that retaining skilled immigrant workers creates jobs across the board: for every 100 foreign-born graduates of a U.S. master’s or Ph.D. program who stays in America working in a STEM field, over 250 jobs are created. In addition, these workers make more than a fair share of contributions to our tax base. Data from 2009 shows that the average foreign-born adult with an advanced degree paid almost $23,000 in federal, state, and Social Security and Medicare taxes, while their families received public benefits worth just 10% of that sum. The best and brightest from around the world want to come here and become Americans. We should welcome them.
The ongoing crisis at our southern border has been exacerbated by an inept and too often harsh response to a very real surge in immigrants and asylum-seekers attempting to illegally cross the border or legally presenting themselves at border crossings and requesting asylum. In a woefully misguided — and obviously failing — attempt to discourage more migrants from making the often dangerous journey to our border, this administration has made matters worse with family separation and, in some places, less than humane conditions at immigrant detention facilities. Yet still more people keep coming. These attempts to scare immigrants away from America will continue to fail because despite the disgraceful conditions reported from the border every day — people forced to live in filth, denied due process in court hearings, and the anguished crying of infants and toddlers forced from their parents — the situations so many are fleeing are unimaginably worse.
Migrants coming from Central America make up the majority of the recent surge in numbers, in particular those from the “Northern Triangle” countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) and increasingly from politically unstable Nicaragua as well. They are fleeing communities where endemic violence has taken hold, fueled by the drug trade, weapons smuggling, and organized crime. For many reasons (including, at times, misguided US policies and the high demand for illegal drugs in the United States) government officials in these countries are all too often corrupt or inept. They are often incapable of fighting back against organized crime, or else they are complicit. Our country, which sends hundreds of millions in foreign aid to these countries, must do a better job of holding Central American officials accountable for seeing that our funds are spent effectively — and that they do not become fuel for the fires of corruption and instability. We must also ensure that military and policy training programs we offer to the governments of other countries center respect for due process and human rights. And we must also recognize that climate change (driven largely by industrial countries like ours) is also a driving force for immigration, including from Central America. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently reported that 2.2 million Central American farmers have suffered significant crop losses in recent years due to drought and sometimes excessive rainfall. Lakes and aquifers are drying up, and excessive heat in the summer can sometimes make life unbearable. These weather extremes are caused by climate change, so unless we deal with climate change (as I’ve detailed on the Climate Change & Environmental Protection issue page) the migration problem will only get worse.
Migrants don’t choose to leave their homes and communities on a whim. They would much rather stay at home, in a familiar community that is safe and prosperous, but when that no longer becomes an option they get desperate and become willing to take immense risks. That is why we must enhance the focus and effectiveness of programs meant to mitigate the conditions people are fleeing — there really is no other way to stem these high migration flows. And with climate change it will only get worse if we do not act now. We must always show these people compassion and respect — because that is who we are as a nation, the home of the compassionate Statue of Liberty, inscribed with those wise words of Emma Lazarus — both by working hard to help their countries become better places to live, and by treating migrants humanely when they arrive on our doorstep.