“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
With these powerful words, President Barack Obama signaled to the millions of people standing before him at his inauguration that a change in discourse is coming to America, a move away from the politics of fear and toward the politics of hope. This renewed promise to pursue genuine solutions to the problems facing the American people must include broad change to our dysfunctional immigration system.
President Obama has advocated for comprehensive immigration reform that will increase opportunities for people to come to this country legally to reunite with their families and to work within rational limits. He realizes that reforming our immigration system includes encouraging undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and get into the system.
The 2008 elections changed the political landscape and created a clear mandate to change our immigration system so that all immigrants can once again embrace America. The makeup of Congress has changed — Hardliners on immigration have been replaced by politicians who favor immigration reform that ensures the economic security of all Americans.
Responding to the negative rhetoric of the immigration debate, immigrant and Latino voters turned out in record numbers to vote for change. Latino voters helped turn Florida, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia from red to blue, and are the fastest growing segment of the electorate.
More broadly, the American people — whites, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, independents, young people — have elected an African American to lead this country. We are becoming more tolerant of diversity.
This tolerance shows up in opinion polls that test attitudes towards immigration reform. Voters have consistently favored comprehensive immigration reform over enforcement-only approaches that would require all undocumented immigrants to leave.
The Obama administration has the opportunity to provide the leadership to mend our broken immigration system, legalize undocumented immigrants, unite families, protect workers and restore the rule of law.
If we want to fix the immigration system in any meaningful way, we need a change from the last two decades of enforcement-only approaches to immigration policy. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security has come down hard on undocumented immigrant workers. The agency has separated immigrant families and terrorized whole communities in random raids, which may remove a few hundred of the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants in this country, but can do little to restore order to our immigration system. The methods used by the agency to enforce our broken laws have degraded the due process rights upon which this country was founded and have been an ineffective solution.
With the stroke of a pen, President Obama can dial back the greatest excesses and wasteful spending of Bush administration enforcement practices and focus on sensible enforcement measures targeting persons who might be a threat to America, not those who are integral to our economy. News reports of the Obama administration putting federal regulations under scrutiny and placing a hold on Bush’s midnight policy changes is encouraging.
But real reform will establish a system that rational immigrants and employers will choose to use, rather than circumvent. It will include a remedy for the hundreds of thousands of close family members seeking legal admission, but who are caught in immigration backlogs.
Real reform will mean taking the pressure off of the border so that scarce resources can be deployed to identify and counteract legitimate threats with less time wasted on interdicting economic migrants who will become productive workers and taxpayers, particularly if they are allowed to come with vetting and a visa rather than in the dead of night with a smuggler.
Real reform will recognize that millions of immigrants are here illegally, working, paying taxes and raising families. A large population of workers and families existing outside the system is unacceptable. We need to get these undocumented individuals into the system so that we ensure they pay their fair share and have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. Only through a controlled legalization of those who meet certain criteria can we hope to isolate those few immigrants hiding under the radar who may wish to do us harm or take unfair advantage of our generosity.
This is how we regain control, create an even playing field for all workers in the economy, and ensure that workers and employers who play by the rules will be rewarded rather than undercut.
The American people want real solutions, not divisive rhetoric. The new administration and new Congress hold great promise for progress on immigration reform. Now it is up to people of conscience to hold our elected representatives accountable and demand immigration reform that benefits the American people, America’s economic and homeland security, and moves us towards a new era of recognizing that immigration is not a source of weakness for America — it is a sign of our strength.
Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonpartisan immigrant advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.