America Needs to Take a Problem Solving Approach to Immigration Reform

Protesters calling for immigration reform (John Moore/Getty Images) 

In his second and last Inaugural address, President Obama laid out a vision for the next four years, including a commitment to seeking immigration reform.

“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country,” he said.

On this point he was exactly right. Our nation’s immigration system is broken and it is in dire need of reform. No longer should those who seek to come to the U.S. to work and contribute to our economy face unfathomable wait times. No longer should those in this country illegally be stuck in the shadows forever.

Nor should immigrants educated in this country be sent home to work for our competitors. Finding ways to address these challenges is essential to continuing to fulfill the promise that the United States has always offered as a nation of immigrants. The way we go about it, however, says everything about whether or not we will succeed. On this point, unfortunately, President Obama is unlikely to get it anywhere near as right.

Indeed, in Obama’s next major address, the State of the Union, he’s expected to call for “comprehensive” immigration legislation. This is the very same approach we have tried time and time again to no avail. Indeed, the last attempt, back in 2007, did not make it through Congress. Since then, similar proposals have failed to garner support on either side of the aisle.

Beyond the lack of political will, comprehensive immigration legislation is likely to make the very problems it sets out to solve worse. Often loaded with payoffs for special interests and introducing measures that have contradicting aims, bills that seek to solve everything often see few winners, at least when it comes to the people they’re intended to help.

In fact, the last time we passed comprehensive legislation was in 1986. Since then the illegal population in the U.S. has quadrupled.

What is needed instead is a problem-solving approach to immigration reform. An approach which doesn’t try and sweep everything up into a supposedly grand solution, but instead addresses each of our nation’s immigration challenges in its own track.

Which makes sense, really. After all, illegal immigrants in this country are not a monolithic block. Nor are the immigration challenges faced by American employers and those seeking to come to the U.S. legally all one in the same. There is, therefore, no one comprehensive policy that will deal with all of these matters at once.

An approach that addresses each of the many issues separately promises more meaningful reform. This means fostering real debate and solutions to reforming our legal immigration system, so that those who wish to come here can do so fairly and efficiently. It means ensuring our immigration system is more responsive to the needs of our economy. It means enforcing laws that are on the books. It means enhancing border-security measures and recognizing that state and local authorities can serve as responsible partners in each of these efforts.

To steal one from President Obama’s page on Monday, as Martin Luther King once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” Rather than continuing to play politics with immigration reform, our nation’s leaders need to take the responsible way forward.