Immigration Reform: Ensuring the Promise of the American Dream
By Robert Menendez, US Senator
Since the Mayflower brought the first settlers to our nation’s shores, immigrants have continued to build America's long and proud history. Whether your family was part of the brave men and women who made the voyage on that first ship, or part of the millions who stepped off a ship at Ellis Island, or if you yourself came here to start a new life, we all have a connection to immigration.
Unfortunately, our country’s immigration system is broken. Our nation needs tough, smart, and comprehensive reform that preserves family values, keeps us safe, rewards hard work and sacrifice, benefits all Americans, and promotes safe, legal and orderly immigration.
Last year, the United States Senate worked to pass comprehensive immigration reform. We voted to add thousands of Border Patrol agents and immigration enforcement investigators, as well as increase the use of aerial vehicles and sensors. We supported toughening penalties for those caught evading immigration officers or smuggling people across the border. We supported creating a temporary guest-worker program and a pathway to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants if — among other things — they pay a fine, learn English, undergo a criminal background check, pay their taxes, and go to the back of the line, as those legally awaiting a green card deserve to be rewarded for following U.S immigration policies. Unfortunately, these sensible reforms were beat back by election year politicking.
Additionally, in the absence of federal legislation, many local governments are passing ordinances to address issues surrounding undocumented immigration in their communities. Unfortunately, many of these ordinances often violate constitutional equal protection guarantees and create a sense of division in the community. Communities benefit from comprehensive immigration reform because we can ensure accurate Census counts, which translate into equitable funding levels for programs and schools, and we can reduce enforcement demands since the need for day laborers, forged documents and driver’s licenses, and the use of exploitation and human trafficking would largely be shut down.
The start of a new Congress provides us with a new opportunity to pass these much-needed reforms. I am proud to be part of a bipartisan group of fourteen Senators who seek to implement such reform, while enforcing our laws, securing our borders, and protecting our national security.
And this truly is an issue of national security. In 2004, I helped negotiate Intelligence Reform legislation which contained tough, smart new measures adding thousands of additional border patrol agents, detention beds and Immigration and Customs investigators. The legislation criminalized the smuggling of immigrants, just as the 9/11 Commission recommended. Unfortunately, President Bush and the Republican Congress chose not to fully fund all these tough measures to ensure our nation’s safety.
But it is not enough to rely on enforcement only. Over the past two decades, government has tripled the number of Border Patrol agents and increased the enforcement budget ten-fold. Despite these efforts, 12 million individuals have overstayed their visas or are undocumented.
Fully securing our borders is impossible unless efforts include a guest-worker program and encourage immigrants to come out of the shadows and legalize their status. By doing so, we will learn who is here to seek the American dream versus who is here to destroy it through criminal or terrorist acts. Many crossing our borders come looking for work, just as many of our ancestors did. These immigrants contribute to our economy, provide for their families and want a better life for their children.
I am first and foremost for hiring any American who is willing to do any job that is available in this country -- any American who wants to do the backbreaking work that is so needed in our agricultural sector, to clean the bathrooms in our hotels on their hands and knees, and to do the work in our meat-packing plants. These are the jobs done largely by immigrants. We must create an equal playing field to make sure American workers’ wages, benefits and health and safety standards are not undercut. However, it’s also in our best interest to have immigrants participate in and contribute to our society, especially with a mere 4.6 percent unemployment rate and a declining ratio of American workers to retirees.
By coupling enhanced enforcement efforts with new immigration and labor laws, we will not only regulate how workers come into our country, but finally give our border and law enforcement agencies a fighting chance. We must recognize that for every border and customs agent focused on catching an immigrant seeking the American Dream, there is one less agent focused on the crossing of illegal drugs and weapons of mass destruction across our borders. We must secure our borders while modernizing immigration and labor laws.
As we have throughout our Nation’s long and proud history, I believe we must create a pathway to the American dream for those who contribute to our nation and allow them to fully participate in our economy and society. As President Bush told Congress in his 2007 State of the Union speech: “Let us have a serious, civil and conclusive debate, so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law.”
Reform is long overdue. We need a comprehensive, sensible plan to reform our immigration system that is safe, orderly and reflects both economic realities and American values.