Opinion

To Break Immigration Impasse, Look to Criminal Justice Reform for Inspiration

Americans are convinced that Washington is broken.

As someone who was a part of an ideologically diverse coalition that included people like Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, to help enact the First Step Act last year, I’m convinced that bipartisanship can still prevail.

Nowhere is there more of an urgency to bring people together than on immigration.

Despite repeated attempts, Congress has made no meaningful reforms to our country’s immigration system in a generation. Over that time, technological and market forces have dramatically changed the way we live, work and share information. Our economy has doubled in size and population has grown by 30 percent.

Unfortunately, our immigration system remains bound by arcane, restrictive and outright bizarre rules that make it nearly impossible for those who have steered clear of the criminal justice system, but do not have legal status, to have the peace of mind that comes from being protected under the law.

Consider the situation of Dreamers: undocumented immigrants brought here at an early age and living under constant fear of deportation. Most of these young adults are contributing to their communities by enrolling in school, working or serving in the military and want to stay here permanently to pursue their dreams.

They include folks like Julia Verzbickis, a Dreamer from Texas who graduated with honors from Rutgers University and went on to work for Teach for America after college. The estimated 3.6 million strong Dreamer population also includes Amy Cho, a designer from Chicago helping Fortune 100 companies overcome technological challenges.

Our immigration system should welcome folks like Amy and Julia. Instead, congressional gridlock has left many Dreamers in limbo.

Some have been granted temporary relief from deportation proceedings through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But because DACA is temporary, recipients continue to face the uncertainties of the judicial system. The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on the legality of the government’s decision to end the program this week with a ruling coming next summer. However, Congress shouldn’t feel compelled to wait for a ruling to pass reforms to our immigration system.

Dreamers are not the only ones being affected by congressional inaction – the refusal to seek common ground has resulted in a lack of progress on modernizing the legal immigration system and enhancing border security.

Amid all this gloom, though, are signs of hope.

Last week, people from faith, law enforcement and the business community are gathering in Washington to take part in this year’s National Immigration Forum conference to look for ways to build bipartisan support for immigration reform.

Earlier this year, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) joined forces to sponsor bipartisan legislation that would eliminate the discriminatory per-country caps that penalize certain applicants based off their country of origin and has created an unlevel playing field for those to immigrate and work here legally. Similar bills have been introduced several times over the last decade with huge bipartisan support.

Of course, it will take more than one measure to address everything that is broken in our immigration system, but it is encouraging to see lawmakers working across ideological lines for a common goal like we saw in the First Step Act.

In some ways, reforming the immigration system should be easier because policymakers can look to our country’s 220-plus year history to see how immigrants have contributed positively to our society, economy and culture. We are a better country because of immigration and there is no reason we should turn our backs on something that has served us well.

There is empirical evidence to suggest that the American people agree with this assessment.

A poll taken last year found that 74 percent of Americans believe the federal government should be taking the lead on immigration. Another poll found that nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that passing an immigration bill should be a priority.

This growing consensus is reminiscent of what we see every day in our work to create a fairer and more effective criminal justice system. The more the American people learn about that system, the more they want to improve it.

But to enact real change, we need Americans of all backgrounds to join with us to underscore the need for Congress and the White House to muster the political will to move on the issue.

Mark Holden is a board member of Americans for Prosperity.

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