Senate Democrats

America Needs Tough, Fair, and Practical Immigration Reform

America’s immigration system is broken. Ineffective enforcement and inadequate pathways to legal immigration have led to a skyrocketing number of illegal immigrants. It is estimated that nearly 12 million people live in this country without authorization, with an additional 500,000 settling each year. Last year, the Senate passed a comprehensive, bipartisan measure to address this problem, but it was blocked by House Republicans. The American people deserve better. The Democratic Policy Committee recently released a fact sheet titled, “America Needs Tough, Fair, and Practical Immigration Reform.” In the 110th Congress, Democrats have made immigration reform that is tough, fair, and practical a top priority. As the Senate works to move forward on immigration reform, it is important to remember why fixing our broken immigration system is important to our nation.

Illegal immigration has more than doubled in the last ten years. Approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States today, up from 5 million in 1996. As of 2005, 66 percent of these immigrants had been in the country for ten years or less, and 40 percent had been in the country five years or less. It is estimated that nearly 30 percent of the foreign-born population living in this country are unauthorized. (Pew Hispanic Center, “The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.,” 03/06)

Weak enforcement at and beyond the border has contributed to the skyrocketing number of unauthorized immigrants. Under the Bush Administration, apprehensions at the border have fallen by over 31 percent. Between Fiscal Years 1996 and 2000, the average number of apprehensions was 1.52 million. Between the years of 2001 and 2004, this number fell to 1.05 million. (Third Way, “A Heck of a Job on Immigration Enforcement,” 05/06)

The Administration’s apprehension rate in non-border states is even worse. Between Fiscal Years 1996 and 2000, the average number of apprehensions was 40,193. Between the years of 2001 and 2004, that number fell to 25,901 — a decrease of more than 36 percent. Because over half of the illegal immigrants who live in the United States live in non-Mexican border states, the chance of an illegal immigrant being apprehended once inside the country is minimal. In fact, it would take over 200 years to apprehend and deport all of the undocumented aliens already in the country under the Bush enforcement rates. (Third Way, “A Heck of a Job on Immigration Enforcement,” 05/06)

For nearly five years, the Bush Administration virtually abandoned the investigation and prosecution of employers who knowingly hired illegal labor. In 1999, federal authorities imposed 417 fines against companies for hiring illegal labor, but by 2004, they imposed only three fines. The Washington Post reported that, “a 2003 memorandum issued by ICE required field offices to request approval before opening work-site cases not related to protecting “critical infrastructure,” such as nuclear plants. Agents focused on removing unauthorized workers, not investigating and prosecuting employers who were violating immigration laws. ICE also faced a $500 million budget shortfall, and resources were shifted from traditional enforcement to investigations related to national security. . . [Former INS Director of Operations, Mark] Reed said, ‘We were pushed away from doing enforcement.’ The combination of an Administration that turned a blind eye to employer misdeeds and employers who ignored the law created an environment where illegal hiring could flourish. (Washington Post, “Illegal Hiring is Rarely Penalized,” 7/19/06)

Inadequate paths to legal immigration have incentivized illegal immigration. Our current immigration laws, which provide for only 5,000 permanent low-skilled work visas per year, have not kept up with the needs of the job market, which are estimated at approximately 100 times that allocation. Our family immigration system is so backlogged that many people must wait years, in some cases decades, to be reunited with family members. Many observers believe that the mismatch of supply of legal means of entry and demand for immigration has contributed to increased illegal immigration. (National Immigration Forum, “Answers to Important Questions on Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” 06/06; Third Way, “A Heck of a Job on Immigration Enforcement,” 05/06)

Illegal immigration is a threat to our national security. America is a proud nation of immigrants, and the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are productive people who contribute to the spirit, culture, and economy of our country. Nevertheless, it is vital that we know the identities and/or whereabouts of the millions of foreign nationals who live within our borders. Failing to do so represents an enormous gap in U.S. intelligence and fosters a black market of fake documents and criminal smuggling that can be used by those who may truly want to harm our nation. Given that it is not practical to round-up and deport 12 million people, it is imperative that we create incentives for undocumented persons to come out of the shadows and reduce the number of immigrants crossing our borders illegally. (Coalition for Immigration Security, 7/06)

Illegal immigration is unfair to American taxpayers. Immigration reform is needed to re-establish the rule of law and require all those who live in the United States to pay their fair share of taxes. Further, businesses that hire illegal immigrants must no longer be allowed to avoid paying payroll taxes on these workers, who make up nearly five percent of our workforce. (Pew Hispanic Center, “The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.,” 03/06)

Enforcement-only solutions have not worked in the past. While strong and effective border and worksite enforcement is key, only a comprehensive approach will repair America’s broken immigration system. While Congress drastically increased the budget for Border Patrol, from $151 million in 1986 to $1.6 billion in 2002, and the number of border patrol agents, from 4,876 in 1995 to 11,106 in 2005, illegal immigration has not decreased — it has increased. In 1985, it is estimated that there were 4 million illegal immigrants living in this country, by 2005, there were more than 11 million. (National Immigration Forum, “Immigration Enforcement: What Has Been Tried? What Has Been the Result?,” 03/06; Third Way, “A Heck of a Job on Immigration Enforcement,” 05/06; Pew Hispanic Center, “The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.,” 03/06)

Further, increased enforcement near urban centers has not only failed to stem the flow of illegal immigration but has merely encouraged immigrants to cross the border in more remote areas where they are more difficult to apprehend and more likely to die. A record 460 undocumented immigrants died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border between October 1, 2004 and September 30, 2005. (Chicago Tribune, “460 illegal migrants died crossing border,” 10/2/05)

True immigration reform will require a tough, fair, and practical approach that enforces the law and disincentivizes illegal immigration. We need strong and effective border patrol and tough sanctions for employers who break the law, but we also need to give undocumented workers, who are already here, the opportunity to earn their way to U.S. citizenship by getting in the back of the line, working hard for several years, paying taxes, learning English, passing criminal background checks, and paying fines and penalties. We do not, however, need to spend the more than $200 billion over five years that would be required to deport eight to nine million people, which is the estimated number of people who would have to be removed involuntarily. (Center for American Progress, “Deporting the Undocumented, A Cost Assessment, 7/05)

Americans support immigration reform that is tough, fair and practical. A recent nationwide poll of likely voters showed that 75 percent of Americans support the comprehensive immigration reform package that was passed in the Senate last year. That bipartisan proposal would have addressed illegal immigration from all sides by strengthening border and worksite enforcement, improving avenues to legalization, clearing visa backlogs, and providing for a guest worker program. When asked to choose between comprehensive reform and an enforcement-only approach (or “attrition”), 65 percent of Americans favored comprehensive reform and only 26 percent favored the other approach. And a separate poll found that Americans’ top goals for immigration reform are the same as the goals of our bipartisan, comprehensive approach: Tough on the border, fair to taxpayers, and practical in terms of fixing the problem and restoring the rule of law. (National Immigration Forum & Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, “A National Survey of Voter Attitudes on Immigration,” 04/07; Third Way/SEIU survey by Benenson Strategies, 5/06)