Beyond the headlines that have dominated the political landscape over the last few months (health care reform, partisan bickering, too much change or not enough, etc.), are some vital issues that have been too often ignored by politicians and the public alike. Here's one that deserves a lot more attention: our dysfunctional immigration system which continues to undermine families, employers and workers, while presenting unwinnable choices to local policy makers and law enforcement.
This spring, we have the historic opportunity to bring our immigration policies into the 21st century. We don't need more sound bites; we need workable solutions that uphold our values and help us move forward together.
And make no mistake; our immigration system is in bad shape. Parents and children are separated by more than distance; miles of red tape, waiting periods measured in years, and outdated rules all combine to prevent fathers and sons, mothers and daughters from living together as families. Currently, a green card-holding mother from the Philippines, for example, can expect to wait at least 5 years to see her young children join her in the U.S. The system doesn't work for families.
The system doesn't work for employers, workers, or our economy either. Right now unscrupulous employers who break the law can gain a competitive advantage by paying lower wages to undocumented workers. These bad actors increase their profits at the expense of worker health and safety.
For a few on the ideological right, the solution is to spend billions rounding up hardworking unauthorized immigrants from homes and factories across the country. But this does nothing to address the underlying problem. We need reforms that will put all workers on a level playing field, thereby removing the economic incentives for employers to break the law. Reforming immigration will help protect all workers from exploitation and unfair competition.
But "why now?" you ask. We're in tough economic times with millions of Americans out of work. Politicians in Washington usually seem more interested in scoring political points than actually solving the problems we face. Why is now the right time to deal with a controversial topic like comprehensive immigration reform?
Here's why: Voters want pragmatic solutions to complex problems. In the wake of the recent election for the Senate seat in Massachusetts, it's clear that most voters are looking for results, not partisan bickering. In addition, voters recognize that spending billions in tax dollars to build a bigger fence won't work. We need solutions that fix our broken immigration system rather than just more enforcement alone.
Another reason: Comprehensive immigration reform is a bipartisan issue. In 2006 and 2007, Republicans and Democrats reached across the aisle to work together on comprehensive reform bills – with the full support of President Bush. Though these efforts eventually stalled, the potential for bipartisanship remains. In the Senate, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) are working together on a bill that should receive broad support from both the right and the left.
And another: Latino voters are increasingly influential. Election results from the last few years demonstrate that Latino voters are becoming politically engaged in historic proportions. Politicians who cynically adopt a "get-tough-on-immigrants" platform have been punished at the polls, and demographic trends indicate that Latino voters will only become more important in the future.
Finally, it's the right thing to do. Unfortunately, this reason doesn't always connect with politicians, but it does with North Carolinians from Asheville to Wilmington. We are a state and a nation of immigrants. Most Americans hold positive views of immigrants, immigration, and their place in our shared history. People of faith find in their traditions the call to "welcome the immigrant" and to treat all people with respect and dignity. The things that unite us are stronger than our differences. We need to reform immigration to restore fairness and the rule of law, as well as compassion, humanity and justice to how we treat all families.
So, what would comprehensive immigration reform mean for us? Imagine having a system that reflected both the realities of a global economy and our best values. Families would be stronger, enforcement would be more effective, workers would be better paid and protected, and American workers would not face discrimination from unscrupulous employers.
It may be a long-shot to think that the President and Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform this session. The public has come to expect little more than calculated short-term bandages from Washington. But now is the time for leadership on immigration reform. For the sake of our families and our values, we need to work together to get this done. It can't wait any longer.
Chris Liu-Beers is a Program Associate at the N.C. Council of Churches where he coordinates the N.C. Religious Coalition for Justice for Immigrants