Sunday, March 26, 2006

Enforcement-only Approach Won't Fix Immigration Woes

By Mike Honda
The San Jose Mercury News

America's immigration system is broken. Comprehensive immigration reform is the only solution. Democrats and Republicans, business interests, labor and immigrant-rights advocates must all work together if we are to truly arrive at an acceptable solution. Historically, immigrants have made America stronger. That is true today as well. History has taught us it is in our national interest to make our immigration laws rational, consistent and humane.

Today, however, immigrants face unnecessary legal obstacles and hardships. There are 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country who live in constant fear of deportation. The vast majority of these individuals are hardworking taxpayers who contribute greatly to our economy.

Those who are undocumented must be brought out from the shadows, if for no other reason than for our post-Sept. 11 national security's sake. We need a program to compel undocumented workers currently living here to come forward and participate legally in our workforce.

To encourage people to come out from the shadows, some form of earned legalization is critical. Immigrants who are working hard and paying taxes need a chance to adjust their status. Earned legalization would require thorough background checks and payment of appropriate fines and taxes before work eligibility. Finally, a fair, efficient and sensible guest-worker program is necessary to meet the labor supply demands of American employers.

In repairing our immigration system, we must also uphold American values by reuniting families. Reuniting families is of particular concern for the Asian and Pacific Islander-American community. The current family-preference immigration system has not been updated in more than a decade, and an increasing number of families face long periods of separation -- some of up to 20 years or more.

Family reunification is impeded by immigration backlogs and by outdated quota systems. The backlog for processing children of permanent residents to come to the United States is unconscionable for a nation that espouses family values.

Rather than take up comprehensive immigration reform, the U.S. House of Representatives debated and passed HR 4437, the ``Border and Immigration Enforcement Act'' this past December. Of course, border security is a critical component of our nation's security, but we cannot have true security without addressing comprehensive immigration reform.

As U.S. Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff pointed out: ``The problem of immigration is one that's been with this country for 20 years. So we are digging ourselves out of a hole which it took 20 years to dig ourselves into.''

During that time, however, Congress has taken a primarily enforcement-only approach that has put us in the hole that Secretary Chertoff referenced. If you want to get out of a hole, the first step is to stop digging.

The House-passed measure will only worsen an already broken immigration system by, for the first time, making it a crime to be undocumented. Furthermore, actions of people helping undocumented immigrants would be considered criminal activity. The House bill would also impose the federal responsibility and unfunded mandate of the enforcement of immigration laws on our already overworked and underfunded state and local police. These are just a few of the onerous provisions in the House bill.

While the Senate's immigration bill appears to be taking a slightly more moderate approach by considering a guest-worker plan, we are still weeks away from seeing the final product, which will then have to be reconciled with the House's enforcement-only measure.

The real solution requires a comprehensive approach, not a border enforcement-only measure. An enforcement-only approach ignores the reality of our current immigration challenges and will not be an effective way to address the security of our nation and the well-being of our people.

The time has come for Congress to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority.

Mike Honda represents California's 15th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.

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