Michael Chertoff was secretary of homeland security in the George W. Bush administration and is chairman and co-founder of the Chertoff Group, a global security advisory firm.
Twice in the past decade, the Senate has tried to pass immigration reform. In 2007, as secretary of homeland security, I worked with a bipartisan group of senators as they fashioned a comprehensive bill that ultimately died on the floor.
Now there is a tailwind for reform. Substantial security investments since 2006 have led to a steady decline in illegal border crossings. Net inflow across the border is close to zero. Moreover, the immigration stalemate has inflicted a political cost.
The three pillars of immigration reform remain largely what they were in 2007: enforcement, legal immigration and the status of illegal immigrants. What have we as a nation learned that will help ensure we fix this once and for all?
Six years ago, as now, three interest groups were influential in the debate on immigration reform: those troubled that the United States had not achieved control of its borders and immigration flow; business groups unhappy with a cumbersome immigration system that does not satisfy labor markets and imposes complex regulations (including high-tech employers, which were frustrated that foreign graduates with advanced degrees were being forced to leave the United States, and employers in other economic sectors — such as agriculture — that cannot find enough American citizens to fill their labor requirements); and humanitarian groups seeking to prevent the exploitation of undocumented workers and to afford them legal status and a way to citizenship.
In 2007, each of these groups pursued its own agenda in isolation. Enforcement grew, but reform failed. The lesson is that none of these groups can achieve its core interest unless each advocates an approach that will satisfy everyone’s “must-haves” through balanced reform.
Proponents of border security rightly continue to insist that any reform be conditioned on objective and verifiable measures of enforcement success. Without these, the United States would repeat the failure of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which embraced amnesty for undocumented workers but failed to follow through with tough enforcement for future illegal migration. The specter of ongoing cycles of amnesty and illegal migration fueled deep opposition to reform in 2007 and will do so again if not taken seriously. But security advocates must also recognize that, without expanded legal immigration to address the needs of the labor market, border security will be harder and more expensive to achieve. Moreover, an approach that defers all relief for undocumented workers until far in the future will unfairly perpetuate an underclass.
Fortunately, security and business advocates should be able to get behind a system that employs modern technology to integrate efficient immigration and employment processes. A secure Social Security card linked to both the visa process and employment verification would cut employment of illegal entrants or those who overstay and would instill confidence that those admitted for seasonal or temporary work will abide by the terms of their visas. Security and business advocates should also support allowing those lawfully admitted to study for engineering and science degrees to convert to work visas and green cards upon graduation.