As the new U.S. Congress prepares to debate immigration reform and border security, a bipartisan task force has released a report outlining suggestions to simplify and strengthen U.S. immigration policy. Recommendations include consolidating immigration data and jurisdiction under a single federal agency; establishing an "as-needed" work visa for foreign workers; and devising a path to legal residency for illegal workers already in the country. VOA's Marissa Melton reports from Washington.
The co-chairs of the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future this week hosted a forum to discuss their ideas for making immigration reform work. The task force brought members of Congress together with business, labor, and immigration groups, as well as public policy and immigration experts. Their report says, among other things, that the U.S. immigration system is vital to the U.S. economy -- and that the system is broken.
Lee Hamilton, a former U.S. lawmaker and former vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He describes some of the shortcomings of U.S. immigration policy, saying it is complicated, disorganized, and its actions are frequently ignored by all but a few people.
He said, "You've got a system that doesn't help families. It's inhumane. It doesn't meet our economic needs. It is just a managerial mess."
"The system is overburdened everywhere you look, they don't have any regulatory mechanism in it, nobody pays any attention to the administration of immigration except a few people. So that's why we came to the conclusion that we needed some kind of comprehensive reform," he continued.
Hamilton says Congress tends to take up the topic of immigration policy about once every ten years or so. The task force has recommended several radical changes. The first would create a federal agency that would coordinate data on immigration with labor needs. That agency would make periodic recommendations to Congress on how many immigrant workers are needed to fill out the work force.
The second recommendation was to establish a category of foreign worker who is neither temporary nor permanent, but "provisional" -- meaning a foreign worker who could be issued a visa for a finite amount of time to fill holes in the labor force.
Former U.S. lawmaker and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says basing immigration decisions on workplace needs rather than trying to re-unite families is a different approach for the United States, and a more realistic one.
"Participants in our task force felt that employment should be the driver in terms of the policies and approach taken, as opposed to the past, which was either principally family or primarily family-based immigration," he said.
The most controversial suggestion the task force offered was devising a way for immigrants who entered the country illegally to get legal status.
But the task force argues there is simply no good way to deal with the more than 11 million people believed to be in the United States illegally, and the process would split up families in which children are legal residents and parents are not.
But opponents of that idea say giving illegal immigrants a path to legal status amounts to amnesty for illegal acts. The activist group NumbersUSA says when Congress has granted amnesty to select groups in the past, it has been followed by dramatic increases in illegal immigration.
The task force also supported enhancement of border security efforts -- but not with the 1,100 kilometer fence along the U.S. border with Mexico that President Bush approved last year.
Abraham said, "I don't think the building of perimeter fences and more border patrols is ever going to succeed. You're trying to put a fence up that can stop both the economic forces at play and the human aspirational forces at play. And I don't think you can build a fence big enough to do that."
Lee Hamilton put it more succinctly, quoting the governor (Janet Napolitano) of U.S. border state Arizona, where parts of that wall would be built.
"Show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder," he said.
Instead, the force recommends speeding up the implementation of "smart border" measures combining personnel, equipment, and technology. It also called for greater surveillance of legal ports of entry, and government action to disband citizen vigilante groups patrolling the borders.
Hamilton complains that members of Congress often focus on high-profile issues, such as the proposed border wall, rather than work on more comprehensive policy changes.
But both task force leaders say they hope that members of Congress this year will work together to implement comprehensive immigration reform.
Lee Hamilton says he has more faith now, after seeing moves by both parties in Congress to cooperate with one another.
He said, "I'm a little more optimistic than I would have been a few weeks or months back. I think the president is clearly interested in comprehensive reform and he was forced away from that really by the Republicans."
"Now I also believe that immigration is a question where the president and leaders of Congress really think there's an opportunity to make some progress," he added.
Congress is currently discussing more than a dozen proposals to alter or overhaul U.S. immigration policy.