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Four things Congress must do to fix America's immigration mess

There is broad bipartisan agreement that America needs a legislative solution for our immigration policy that is truly “comprehensive.” Administrative “stroke of the pen” solutions from the executive branch can only go so far. The legislative arm of government can and should play the major role in immigration reform.  

Any real solution, however, needs to contain a minimum of four elements. They are: 

1. Enhanced border security.

2. Documenting the undocumented.

3. Addressing gaps in the current US immigration process.

4. Establishing a robust guest worker program.  

All of these elements are made easier to implement by advances in technology.

Every nation must be in control of its own borders, and it is clear that efforts made since 9/11 have improved our capacity for preventing illegal migration. 

Overall, the goal of real immigration reform should be to attract the best and brightest to the United States while still having enough empathy as a nation not to lose sight of the value of family reunification and the compassionate taking in of refugees and immigrants.  

One byproduct of a more secure system at the border, however, is that it contains the undocumented population already here. So, while we need to do more to keep our borders secure, we also need to recognize that the undocumented population already here isn’t going anywhere and must be dealt with efficiently, effectively, and compassionately.  

That means constructive solutions for legalizing the undocumented should be careful to leave out punitive elements such as overly large fines, bans on an eventual path to naturalization, or efforts at altering the current doctrine regarding citizenship at birth in the US that would sink legislation not on its own larger merits, but on what gets added to it as it moves through Congress.  

Fortunately, in contrast to the process undertaken in 1986, the near universal presence of things like smart phones, laptops, and Internet access make it much easier to register and process large numbers of people for an immigration benefit. And we can do so in a way that does not jam up the existing immigration processing system, but rather leverages the familiar technology of on-line banking, tax filing, and other services to get people into the system largely on their own and free up immigration processing resources to focus on the important inherently governmental work of weeding out criminals, preventing fraud, assessing potential threats to our national security, and making the ultimate decisions on who goes and who stays.

Just like any other body of law, US immigration laws must also keep pace with the times and be flexible enough to adapt to the changing nature of global mobility.  

Much has been said and written about the need for an entrepreneurial visa to keep America competitive and grow our economy.  But there are other areas in which our current system is silent about common situations – such as freelancers or sole proprietors wanting to work legally in the US for some period of time. 

Reforming our immigration laws to allow for certain additional types of employment self-petition would allow us to capture more of the benefits of economic activity that we already know occurs inside our borders.

Individuals who are brought into the formal immigration system either through a large-scale legalization program or through additional options for employment status will be applying for Social Security numbers, driver licenses, business licenses, and other documents that those already “in the system” need and use on a daily basis.  

That is a good thing, because it brings in substantial near-term revenue (in the form of fines, application fees and processing fees) to federal, state, and local government, and broadens the tax base generally.  

Our Social Security system desperately needs to add new workers to augment its tax rolls as well.  The pass-through effect of the 1.7 million to 2 million people covered by recent administrative immigration actions – while positive – is not enough.  The nation would benefit far more from bringing 11 million to 12 million more people into the formal economic system.  

Similarly, as we contemplate the future of immigration reform, it is instructive to look to the recent past. When President George W. Bush started his second term, immigration reform was also at the top of the agenda. Work done then to examine a guest worker program should be leveraged now.  

A well designed guest worker program that includes access to 401 (k) style savings and investment accounts only when workers exit the US and return to their country of origin could help bridge the gap between this country’s near term need to regularize the large population of undocumented already here and its long term need to move both skilled and unskilled labor through the marketplace.

Existing US immigration processes bring in fresh waves of individuals who not only add cultural distinctiveness, talent, and entrepreneurial zeal to the American population and the higher birth rate among recent immigrants helps keep the fertility rate in this county closer to replacement levels.  

Overall, the goal of real immigration reform should be to attract the best and brightest to the United States while still having enough empathy as a nation not to lose sight of the value of family reunification and the compassionate taking in of refugees and immigrants.  

Much like energy, immigration is one of those subjects in which “all of the above” is the right answer.  Now is the time.

Michael J. Petrucelli was acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) from 2003-05 after previously serving as the agency’s deputy director for two years. He is currently the founder and executive chairman of clearpath Immigration, LLC.  Prior to USCIS, Mr. Petrucelli was senior vice president for operations and chief of staff of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. As a U.S. State Department foreign service officer, he was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, the Bureau of Intelligence & Research in Washington, DC, and the U.S. Consulate General, Netherlands Antilles.