The Founding Fathers deliberately designed American democracy to be hard, but they did not design it to fail. If some type of immigration reform is not enacted within the next 12 months, then American democracy will have suffered a major failure.
The current immigration process is completely broken, and everyone knows it. Eleven million people now live here illegally, forming a shadow economy and living on the periphery of the law. If Congress can’t do anything about this, what problems can it address?
Let’s be blunt: Illegal immigrants are here because they work cheap. More of us benefit from their labor than are deprived of the jobs they displace, so policymakers have let this continue for decades. The government has held one hand up, palm out, telling them to stay away. With the other, it’s motioned behind its back for them to come here. The result is an entrenched system that mocks the law, makes us less secure, takes advantage of impoverished people, and traps their children in a life of second-class non-citizenship.
It should be obvious that the country has reached the point where, using the blueprint provided by the Founding Fathers, elected officials are supposed to work together and make progress, even though no one will get exactly what they want.
While we can argue over the details – and goodness knows we will – there’s really only one broad framework that makes that progress possible, and it’s roughly what the Senate’s so-called "Gang of Eight" has proposed. Before anything else happens, the border must be made more secure. Enforcement measures and penalties must be stiffened against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
Then, there must be a long and difficult path to citizenship for current illegal immigrants. We cannot simply send home 11 million people without severely disrupting the entire Western Hemisphere’s economy. We’ll need younger workers to help pay for Social Security and Medicare, anyway.
Finally, a much easier path to citizenship must be defined for those who were brought here illegally by their parents – in many cases, carried here in their arms. Does anyone really want to make the argument that a child who was brought to America at age four, excelled in American schools, and enlists to serve in the American military shouldn’t be given a chance to be an American citizen?
Of course, passing any kind of major reform requires getting it past a gauntlet of selfish interests, but the Founding Fathers knew people are selfish and took that into account when they devised the lawmaking process. Besides, it’s in both Republicans’ and Democrats’ selfish interest to pass comprehensive reform. In the last election, 71 percent of voters who consider themselves Latinos voted for President Obama. Both parties want to appeal to this fast-growing group of voters. If Republicans don’t, they’ll stop winning presidential elections for a very long time.
To sum it up, everyone recognizes the status quo is unacceptable. Elected officials have incentives to try to change that status quo. And a path forward exists that can make the border more secure, create more law-abiding taxpayers, and treat fairly those whose only crime was to be brought here by their parents in search of a better life.
If Congress can’t do anything about this, it won’t be just the immigration system that has failed to serve us. It will be our democracy.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.