It's Time For An Immigration Policy That Serves Our National Interest

There is no question that immigration has contributed immeasurably to our nation's dynamism, diversity and prosperity. Immigrants founded many of our iconic businesses, and they have been tremendously important in the worlds of culture, scholarship, business and entertainment. They have helped make America the great nation that it is.

But Americans have become deeply ambivalent about immigration. We are fearful of threats at the borders, and we worry that immigrants are taking American jobs, driving down wages and burdening public services. Some question if they are loyal Americans.

Our immigration policies are broken, outdated and overly complex. Yet Congress has been incapable of fixing them. It addresses the issue, on average, less than once a decade. When it does, it typically responds to pressure from interest groups, not long-term needs.

President Obama has called for comprehensive reform, but just last week the Supreme Court let stand a lower court's reversal of his plan to shield millions of immigrants from deportation and allow them to work.

It is time for a new approach. While it won't be easy, we need to create an immigration system that focuses on the welcoming the immigrants we need to support economic growth and vitality while maintaining our national security.

To do that, we need to move from a system that prioritizes family unification to a policy that emphasizes our employment and workforce needs and security.

Three key principles underlie American immigration policy: family unification, employment and providing for refugees who are fleeing violence and persecution. All are important, but the current system is out of balance and does not well serve our national interest.

About two-thirds of approximately 1.5 million foreign nationals who legally enter the United States each year are admitted as relatives of U.S. citizens. About 17 percent of legal immigration is job-related, made up of people with permanent or temporary permission to enter the U.S. for employment.

A third significant group, about 11 percent, is admitted on humanitarian grounds. Our policy is to not return refugees or asylum-seekers to countries where their lives would be in danger. The number of refugees admitted each year is subject to a cap determined by the president.

Unifying families and welcoming refugees are worthy goals. But in an era when we are competing with China and other growing economic powers and confront significant threats to our national security, we need all the help we can get. And immigration can help provide it.

Admitting the right immigrants will improve productivity. We need more skilled workers - and also more unskilled workers - to take jobs that employers have trouble filling. Immigrants who augment and complement the American workforce will continue to shape our dynamic society.

Immigrants with advanced degrees in science, mathematics and engineering will give our businesses and institutions a competitive edge and propel entrepreneurship. Many of our most successful technology companies, including Intel, Sun Microsystems and Google, were founded at least in part by immigrants.

How do we achieve immigration reform when a polarized government seems incapable of acting?

First, we should create a standing commission empowered to advise Congress. The commission would make recommendations every two years based on labor market needs, unemployment levels and demographic trends. If the Congress fails to respond to the recommendations after a specified period of time, the president should have the authority to take action.

Second, the White House should take on a central role in directing and implementing immigration policy. Authority over immigration is now spread among hundreds of agencies and offices, leading to confusion and conflict. Only the president can provide needed coordination.

Third, we must have stringent, fair and consistent enforcement of immigration law, with clear standards for documentation and verification of immigrant status. Employers, needing workers but lacking a sure-fire way to know if job applicants are in the country legally, often look the other way, hiring immigrants regardless of their legal status.

Of course we also need to secure our borders and do all we can to prevent people, weapons and drugs from entering the country illegally. We have made progress in this area, but more refinements are needed. It requires a multi-layered system that includes a well-resourced border patrol, aerial surveillance, radar and other methods

Potential terrorists must be aggressively targeted. Keys here include better intelligence gathering and analysis, appropriate sharing of data and more secure, accurate documents.

Many Americans are deeply concerned about border security and terrorism, and many are upset about the 11 million to 12 million immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally. The number has been stable in recent years, suggesting illegal immigration is being offset by deportations.

The idea that all those people should be deported, however, is not feasible; that would require an unacceptable increase in enforcement resources and authority. My view is that our deportation efforts should focus on those who pose a threat to public safety. And for those who are contributing to society, there should be a path to legal resident status.

Finally, we need to do a better job of integrating immigrants into American society. This is an area where local agencies and nonprofit organizations, not the federal government, should take the lead.

Yet for all the problems and complexity, we should remember that immigration is essential to advancing our national interest. It has been in the past. It will be in the future. Immigration is a fundamental element of who we are and who we are becoming.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.