A group of scholars and former U.S. officials is recommending a complete overhaul of America's immigration system to safeguard the vibrancy and dynamism of the U.S. economy, improve national security, and deal with the estimated 12 million illegal aliens living in the United States.
The Independent Task Force on Immigration argues that America's immigration system is dysfunctional to the growing detriment of the nation. Task force co-chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic U.S. congressman from Indiana, says the United States cannot afford to throw away the many benefits provided by immigration.
"It is vital in an economic sense, to sustain our growth, to give us the skills we need at both the lower end and the higher end of the labor market," said Lee Hamilton. "It is needed because immigrants have been such a driving force in our country over a period of many years. It is needed because the openness of America is one of the great traditions of our country. The benefits of immigration far, far outweigh the disadvantages of it."
Hamilton, who also served as vice chairman of the U.S. 9/11 Commission, spoke at a news conference marking the release of a task force report titled "Immigration and America's Future: A New Chapter."
The 150-page report recommends mandatory employer verification of workers' identity and eligibility to hold a job in the United States. It recommends strengthening U.S. border controls to stem illegal immigration, but does not recommend any mass deportations of undocumented workers already in the Untied States.
The report also advocates dividing legal immigrants into three categories: temporary, permanent and provisional. Task Force Director Doris Meissner, a former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service:
"We are familiar with temporary immigration and permanent immigration," said Doris Meissner. "Those are in the system now. We create a new, much more fluid area called provisional visas for people of all skill levels who have the opportunity, the possibility of employment in the United States to be able to come here, whether or not they end up becoming permanent immigrants."
Meissner says flexibility is required if the United States is to attract the world's most skilled and able workers, and that establishing a "provisional" category would provide precisely the leeway many newcomers desire.
The task force report comes at a period of heated debate in the United States over immigration policy. President Bush has called for strengthening America's borders while providing a path to legal citizenship for many law-abiding undocumented workers. The U.S. Senate has passed a bill that mirrors the president's proposal. But a House version passed late last year would treat illegal aliens and those who assist them as felons, and require that undocumented workers return to their home country before applying for legal residency.
Public opinion polls show Americans deeply divided on how best to reform the immigration system. Task force co-chairman Spencer Abraham, a former Republican Senator from Michigan, says achieving a national consensus for a workable plan will not be easy.
"How do we get to an America in which new arrivals come through a system that is safe for them and that is accepted popularly by the American people," asked Spencer Abraham. "How do we do this in a way that is in the best interests of the people coming and America's economy? How do we do it in a way that is bureaucratically feasible? How do we do it so that people who arrive in this country are integrated in a very positive way so that they still have the enjoyment of and the respect for their heritage - at the same time that they truly become part of America's culture and society?"
Abraham echoed the views of many political observers who say it is highly unlikely that Congress will enact immigration reform ahead of November elections.