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Let's create a process for citizenship that honors America's immigrants

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Jan. 29, 2013: Illegal immigrants and immigration activists watch a live image of President Barack Obama speaking about immigration reform as they sit together in Miami. (AP)

When my great, great grandparents came to America from Europe a century ago, they didn't get in line. They just got on a boat. 

They didn't get visas in their home countries or secure jobs in their new homeland. They just got on a boat carrying few possessions but their hearts and minds overflowing with abundant faith in the vision of opportunity for all enshrined in America's founding documents and evolving history ever since.  

Then as now, new American immigrants were ostracized and attacked culturally but enthusiastically welcomed by America's economy. 

Generations ago, Irish and Italian immigrants were demonized and scapegoated just as Latino immigrants are today. And yet throughout our nation's history, immigrants have been integral to our economic progress. And striving to treat immigrants with dignity and fairness has been integral to our national values.  

"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally," said President Ronald Reagan during the campaign for his reelection in 1984.  

Two years later, in his second term, President Reagan granted citizenship to millions of aspiring Americans.  He understood then, as now, that the immigration system was broken and not working for immigrants, citizens or America's economy, that a workable process for immigration was essential.  

Whether they’re rich or poor or Mexican or Filipino or young or old or gay or straight, immigrants are an essential part of all of our daily lives, our families, our communities, our economy.

Today, immigrants are an even more integral part of the American economy. 

Over the past forty years, as family farms have shuttered, more immigrant farm workers have been relied upon to tend massive fields.  

As more women have joined the workforce, immigrants have become family caregivers, taking children to school and tending to elderly relatives.  And yes, many of the most successful businesses in America --- from Google to eBay and more --- were started by immigrants. 

But whether they’re rich or poor or Mexican or Filipino or young or old or gay or straight, immigrants are an essential part of all of our daily lives, our families, our communities, our economy.  It's time we create a process for citizenship reflects this reality and honors the contributions of immigrants in our nation.  

Much is made of the sense that undocumented immigrants are law breakers. Technically, of course.  But anyone who's ever driven with an expired license or registration technically broke the law, too, in much the same way as an immigrant who overstayed a visa, which is the case for the vast majority of undocumented immigrants. 

Yes, we are a nation of laws --- including fines for expired paperwork.  But do we patrol our highways with drones and militarize street corners in the way we've done along the Mexico border -- and which some Republicans want to do more of?  

We have implemented extreme and severe border security.  And President Obama has deported more immigrants than his predecessor and spent more on immigration enforcement than all other federal law enforcement priorities combined.  

Prioritizing more border enforcement would be both inhumane and wasteful.  

Even Ronald Reagan wrote, after a 1979 meeting with the President of Mexico, that his goal was to make America's southern border "something other than the location for a fence." 

If good fences make good neighbors, we have already invested in big, harsh, militarized fences.  It's time to be more neighborly to new immigrants.  

Our nation deported over 400,000 aspiring Americans last year alone. These are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends.  These are parents at our kids’ schools and construction workers at the new house down the block.  Taken away from their families, taken away from their lives, deported without due process, often back to countries they left decades ago and barely know.  

Meanwhile, there are at least 5,000 citizen children in foster care in America because their parents have been deported and our government makes their parents fight for custody. 

Just this month, immigration officials raided the home of a young immigrant rights activist in Arizona and detained her mother and brother.  The pain and horror of the incident is evident in a video the activist recorded later that night.

This is how we treat people who just want to make a better life for their children, who are drawn to our shores by our nation's values and the many, many employers who actively recruit immigrant workers. 

People who say that's not the system our great, great grandparents went through are right: My great, great grandparents were treated much better. And I know that if my great, great grandparents were here today, they would want other new immigrants to have the same opportunity and access to citizenship that they had, no matter the path to get here.  

Sally Kohn joined the Fox News Channel in 2012 as a contributor.

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