Is the U.S. Immigration Policy too Soft?

Is U.S. Immigration Policy Too Soft Compared to Other Industrialized Nations?

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s London Correspondent

According to a study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, there are approximately 11.2 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. While some politicians insist that the U.S. government should offer amnesty to illegal immigrants, most people agree that the U.S. should take tougher measures to deter people from entering the country illegally in the future. In a study funded by the German Marshall Fund, more than half of Americans polled believed that current illegal immigrants should be offered a path to legal residency, but over 80% insisted that the U.S. should have better border controls and stronger punishments for individuals and companies who employ illegal immigrants.

Is the U.S. too soft on illegal immigrants? If we want to solve the problem of illegal immigration in the United States, this is the wrong question to ask. The key to this issue does not lie in whether the U.S. is “too hard” or “too soft” on illegal immigrants, but in the fact that the U.S. is too tough on any foreign citizen who wishes to enter the country legally. Most people do not wish to be considered “illegal”; loosen requirements on legal immigration to the United States and the problem of illegal immigration will shrink.

The United States economy, especially in its current turmoil, needs immigrants. Around two thirds of illegal immigrants in the U.S. work, making up 4.9% of the workforce in total, and contrary to popular stereotypes, these workers provide valuable services that most natural-born U.S. citizens would be unwilling to provide. Sectors such as farming, food preparation, construction and cleaning often rely on the work of unskilled immigrants, but current U.S. law only allows 5,000 unskilled immigrants (without close family in the U.S.) to enter the country legally each year. If needed unskilled workers could gain legal residency in the United States without decades of waiting lists, the rate of illegal immigration would be reduced.

Highly skilled workers also find it difficult to enter the United States legally, even if they have received their higher education at prestigious American institutions (often at some cost to the U.S. government). In June 2011, New York Major Michael Bloomberg declared that the U.S. risks “national suicide” if it does not adopt a more welcoming immigration policy, as the world’s greatest brains currently end up living in and contributing to the economy’s of foreign nations instead. Forty percent of Fortune 400 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, and these companies generate $4.2 trillion per year in the United States. Between 1995 and 2005, 25% of patent applications were filed by immigrants, and 25% of start-up companies had at least one immigrant founder. By making it difficult for immigrant workers to enter the United States legally, the United States is crippling itself economically.

Although many people have the mental image of illegal immigrants smuggling themselves across the border, the reality of illegal entry into the U.S. is often very different. According to the Department of Homeland Security, almost 50% of illegal immigrants in the U.S. arrived in the country legally using temporary, non-immigrant visas, such as student visas. These individuals often made ties to the United States during their legal stay and developed skills that they wish to contribute to the U.S. economy but are prevented from making this legal contribution because of overly strict immigration laws. Even family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents find themselves resorting to illegal immigration to be reunited with their relatives because of overly long waiting lists.

Although the U.S. ranked 9th out of 31 countries in Europe and North America in terms of immigration policies in a study by the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), the study declared the fees and backlogs involved in the movement of family members to the U.S. as signs of a “broken” immigration system. Even those who have found legal status in the U.S. through the acquisition of a Green Card can find themselves in difficulty, as this status can be surprisingly fragile and excludes them from vital federal benefits. Spouses and children of Green Card holders, with the exception of Green Card Lottery winners, are not even allowed to enter the United States to see their relative until they have been on a waiting list for four or five years, a system which almost encourages families to take illegal measures to be reunited.

However, even if changes to legal immigration policy would help prevent illegal immigration in the future, what should the country do about the 11.2 million individuals already living in the U.S. illegally? Although critics of current immigration policy suggest that the U.S. is too soft on its illegal inhabitants, laws against illegal immigration have grown tougher over the past few years. The Obama administration has deported 1.06 million illegal immigrants in less than three years, compared to the 1.57 million deported during the entirety of Bush’s eight years as president. Lawmakers have also been launching schemes designed to make life so difficult for illegal immigrants that they leave voluntarily. In 2010, Georgia banned illegal immigrants from attending certain state universities, and some members of Congress have been fighting to prevent the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States receiving automatic U.S. citizenship. However, certain new “anti-illegal immigration” laws, such as the Arizona “stop and search” law, have been the subject of intense criticism because of the racism that seems inherent in the bill, with some critics even claiming that the law breaches human rights. Although the U.S. therefore appears reluctant to allow illegal immigrants to stay, it cannot forcibly deport almost 12 million people. Not only would such an attempt be a logistical nightmare that would severely damage an already suffering economy, it would show a severe lack of compassion on a massive scale that would severely damage the U.S.’s standing in the global community.

It would therefore be better to follow the example of European countries with similar border immigration problems, such as Spain, which legalized nearly 600,000 illegal immigrants who contributed to the nation’s economy in 2005. In the past 25 years, Europe as a whole has offered legalization to immigrants over 20 times, giving residence to over 4 million people who had entered the countries illegally. In 2003, meanwhile, Britain declared that those who have been in the country for 14 years can apply for “indefinite leave to remain” on compassionate grounds, or based on the strength of their connection to the U.K. Even countries that are not offering mass amnesty, such as Sweden, offer compassionate programs to illegal immigrants, with the Swedish government recently deciding that illegal immigrants qualified for government-funded healthcare and education.

The message, it seems, is that even illegal residents are entitled to their human rights (a concept which, in Europe at least, includes health and education). Far from being relatively “soft” on illegal immigrants, the U.S. therefore has one of the toughest stances to long-standing illegal residents in the world, and one of the most difficult immigration processes to navigate legally.

The United States is a nation built upon immigration. It must return to its beginnings, providing feasible routes to legal immigration for both those inside and outside the country in order to solve its illegal immigration problem and maintain its standing as a world leader in policy, economics and innovation.

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