Stepping Up to the Plate on Immigration

America's unsecured borders, undocumented immigrants and expired visas have been in the national spotlight since September 11, and remain a challenge to national security. The federal government shirked its duty on these issues. Their dodges have fed racial tensions, left thousands of families in limbo, and forced local governments to search for solutions to problems they are not equipped to handle.

Putting immigration on the backs of state and local government is clearly not working. In Congress, I will push for comprehensive, sound solutions to the issues surrounding documented and undocumented immigrants.

Overhauling the System

Although there are jobs available for immigrants choosing to enter this country legally, the fact that so many continue to cross the border illegally shows that legal channels are not working. By placing agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Homeland Security umbrella, the Bush Administration has tangled an already jumbled set of procedures and limited the already scarce resources the organization needs to get the job done. The result has been legal immigrants waiting for action on their status for as many as four years. Too many immigrants who would be productive American citizens are being kept out, and too many who may pose a threat to our nation are coming in.

It's time for a complete overhaul of the immigration system, allowing us to rationally organize various groups involved - ICE and the Office of Customs and Border Protection within the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State. We need to streamline the bureaucracy and build more lines of communication between and within immigration agencies. This would allow us to consider how much legal immigration can be expanded and expedited, and clear the tremendous backlog of those waiting for visas or citizenship.

Securing the Borders

A vital part of that comprehensive reform will be dealing with the situation at our borders. The U.S. Border Patrol has done a commendable job with the resources it has at hand in enforcing our laws, but the White House has not provided for the manpower, equipment, or funding to properly monitor almost 7,500 miles worth of borderland. By redistributing our assets, the Border Patrol can fully execute its assigned tasks. I will support an expansion in personnel and the increased use of modern technology to help those new employees in their day-to-day border patrol activities.

Stemming the Flow

While critical, tightening security at our borders only addresses the effects of illegal immigration. The fact remains, undocumented workers have access to better jobs in this country than in many other nations. They will continue to try to enter this country as long as this remains the case. Right now, employers in the United States have every incentive to hire illegal immigrants - it's cheap, they don't have to offer the same labor standards and no one holds them accountable when they flout the law. I will work to set up a federal computer database where companies can check the status of potential hires, making it easier for them to verify the status of their workers and making it harder for them to claim ignorance. This will allow us to crack down on employers who violate labor laws by hiring and underpaying undocumented workers.

Hand-in-hand with that effort would be closing the loopholes in our labor laws that allow employers to turn what are essentially full-time and permanent positions into temporary jobs through the guest worker program. Those laws were meant to benefit the workers, not to allow companies to save money by denying workers their benefits.

We can combine this effort in America with a new trade policy. NAFTA and other free trade agreements just don't have the necessary worker protections, which has led to a race to the bottom in salaries. These agreements have lowered living standards everywhere and prevented other countries from developing their economies. I fought against NAFTA the first time it was voted on, and I'll continue working to change those policies so that we can raise the quality of life for American workers and workers from neighboring countries. We must work with our trade partners to help them create jobs for their own people, which in turn will create more trade opportunities for us.

Bringing the Underground to Light

In the meantime, there remains the problem of what to do with the 12 million undocumented workers believed to be in America already. There has been plenty of heated rhetoric about this issue, and in the course of it we lose sight of an important point: many of those undocumented workers are industrious additions to our community. Still, they should not receive the same treatment as those who are willing to follow our laws. Undocumented workers should pay a fine, learn English, submit to a criminal background check and go to the back of the line, behind legal immigrants who played by the rules. Only then will they be allowed to establish residency and remain this nation. This policy would restore the integrity of our legal immigration system, require undocumented immigrants to participate in the system legally, allow them to compete on a level playing field for work and benefits, and stop them from being used to undercut citizens and legal immigrants.