"I’ll see you at the bill-signing,” President George W. Bush told reporters, referring to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, a bipartisan effort to fix the United States’ broken immigration system. But the signing never came. Instead, the bill died in the House of Representatives, and millions of undocumented workers remained in the shadows.
Now, seven years later, our country faces a similar opportunity for positive change: A group of eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans, recently announced a plan to draft comprehensive immigration reform legislation by March and bring it to a vote before Congress’s summer recess. On the heels of their announcement, President Obama unveiled his own blueprint for reform. Although it is heartening to see Congress and the White House heading in the same direction, President Obama’s vision for reform has a leg up on the Senate’s. Most importantly, the President’s plan more immediately addresses the needs of undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Those who argue that legalizing immigrants would hurt American workers and taxpayers are misguided in their beliefs. In reality, an immigration overhaul that strengthens border security, minimizes hiring of undocumented workers, and streamlines legal immigration, while opening a pathway to full citizenship for undocumented workers already in the U.S., could solve a host of problems for current citizens and foreigners alike.
For one thing, many businesses knowingly hire undocumented workers well below the minimum wage, allowing them to turn a higher profit than businesses that play by the rules. This harms law-abiding companies, the middle class, and the economy as a whole. What’s more, many immigrants study in universities where they earn skills that could help the economy flourish, and then have no other option but to turn around and head back home—doubtless many students at Harvard fit this bill. Often, these students create new, exciting industries abroad, industries that end up bolstering the economies of our competitors when they could have strengthened our own.
Both President Obama and the senators pushing for immigration reform recognize these facts, but the senators seek to delay immigrants from applying for permanent citizenship until the government has taken steps to stem additional immigration—like securing the border, implementing systems to track visas, and checking the legal status of workers. Under the Senate plan, immigrants could immediately gain provisional legal status if they met national security and criminal background checks and paid back taxes and a fine. But afterwards, they would remain in a state of limbo for who knows how long, ineligible for federal benefits like health care subsidies. President Obama, on the other hand, would allow immigrants who had been granted provisional legal status the ability to embark on the road to full citizenship right away.
The President’s approach makes far more sense than the Senate’s. First off, it will be a long while till our border is anywhere near completely secure. This, coupled with the time it will take for the existing immigration backlogs to clear, may cause many immigrants not to see citizenship in their lifetimes. Besides, it seems unfair to name a group of people legal U.S. residents and then not allow them to become citizens on the same terms as everyone else. After all, efforts to secure the border are irrelevant when dealing with immigrants who have already crossed it—it is not as if people who are living here illegally are reaping the benefits of more immigrants entering. If we plan to legalize undocumented residents, we should not hold their rights to become full citizens hostage to policy initiatives that are out of their control and that do not change their own lives or legal status.
President Bush may have said, “I’ll see you at the bill-signing,” but another (perhaps greater) president once called the United States “a nation of immigrants.” Today, we should remember John F. Kennedy’s words. We should remember that we are all descended from immigrants, even if our ancestors traveled here on the Mayflower. We should remember that our country grew to become the most powerful in the world not in spite of, but because of the people who came from abroad to make it great. And in that spirit, let us hope for comprehensive immigration reform that will give undocumented residents a real chance to make it even greater.
Molly L. Roberts ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Holworthy Hall. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.