Americans believe in the value of immigration. We are the most generous nation on earth to immigrants, allowing over one million people a year to come here legally. They come here in pursuit of what we recognize as the American dream – the chance to live in freedom and have the opportunity to work hard to make a better life for themselves and their families.
The problem is that our legal immigration system has been broken for decades. It has enabled 11 million people to come here illegally or overstay visas. It is a bureaucratic and inefficient system that does not address the needs of our economy.
All this has further deepened the American people’s mistrust in the ability of their government to perform basic functions.
Leaving in place a broken immigration system -– and the millions of people whose identities are a mystery to us –- is simply not an acceptable option. This must be fixed.
That is why I am advocating for securing our borders, improving enforcement, modernizing our legal immigration system and changing it so that it prioritizes welcoming people to the U.S. based on skills, not just on whether they have a family member already living here.
And that is why I support a process to identify and register those who are here illegally. They will have to submit biometric data in order to pass multiple national security and criminal background checks, pay $2,000 in fines, pay taxes, and learn English and American civics. They won’t be able to get any federal benefits like welfare or ObamaCare.
Before they can even apply to become permanent residents, they will have to wait at least ten years. They will have to get in line behind those who are trying to come the right way.
They will have to wait until we have a system in place to prevent illegal immigrants from being hired.
They will have to wait until we have a system in place to track people who overstay their visas.
And they will have to wait until we implement plans to spend at least $5.5 billion dollars to secure the border through more border patrol officers, more technology and more fencing.
I thought long and hard before taking on this issue. I understand how divisive it can be. I’ve seen how the left has used it to accuse opponents of their version of reform of being bigots and racists. And I would much rather be having a debate on the more fundamental ways we can grow our economy and get our debt and spending under control. But with or without us, the president and the Democrats who control the Senate were going to bring this issue up.
And I believe conservatives need to fight for the ideas and policies we believe are critical to fixing our immigration system.
The opponents of reform raise important points about not rewarding the violation of the law. I, too, have felt the frustration many feel that our nation’s generosity has been taken advantage of by some.
But policy-making is about solving problems. And to pick the right solution, you have to weigh the realistic alternatives. Deporting all illegal immigrants is not a practical solution. But ignoring the fact that they are here is just as bad.
For example, passing a law that only focuses on modernization and enforcement and leaves for another day the issue of those here illegally is not a good idea. Because as the enforcement measures kick in, millions of people living here illegally will be unable to work and provide for themselves and their families. The resulting humanitarian impact will then force us to scramble to address it. It is better to address it now as part of an orderly and measured process.
The only solution I know that can work is to reform legal immigration in a way that is good for the economy, do everything we can to secure the border, and allow illegal immigrants to eventually earn permanent residency by passing background checks, paying a fine, learning English and waiting at the back of the line for at least 10 years, at the same time that border security and enforcement measures are put in place to prevent this problem from happening again.
The bill I helped write is a good starting point, but it is not a take it or leave it proposition. I am open to any ideas others may have on how to do this, and I’ve been listening to the legitimate concerns people have raised with the expectation that we will be able to improve the bill as this debate continues.
We must do something to end today’s de facto amnesty, and conservative Republicans should lead on this issue. Because without conservatives at the table and in the fight, we are ceding this issue to President Obama and his allies in Congress. And as the last four years have proven, that is never a good idea.
Republican Marco Rubio represents Florida in the U.S. Senate. He is a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and was a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2016.