The recent influx of illegal immigrants from Central America into the United States is reigniting the debate over our broken immigration system. Images of young children waiting to be processed in temporary holding centers are more reminiscent of third-world refugee camps than anything one would expect to see in the United States. This is no doubt a humanitarian crisis in itself, but one that can be remedied and one that can set the stage for a comprehensive reform package if Congress can forge a bipartisan solution to address this situation.
Passing comprehensive immigration reform should be a no-brainer for Republicans who are seeking to broaden their appeal to Hispanic voters and independents ahead of the mid-term elections and the 2016 presidential race. They could also do so without fear of alienating their base. In a recent poll by the American Action Forum, an organization that I founded, 4 of 5 Republican primary voters support taking a step-by-step approach to immigration reform that includes “border enforcement, E-verify, and earned legal status with significant conditions including paying a fine and back taxes, learning English and proof of employment.” These numbers are proof that Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on the issue.
The solution to this problem, however, is not, as President Obama suggested, to simply throw money at it. The $3.7 billion requested by the administration will do little to strengthen the border or stop more people from attempting to cross it illegally. As Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed regarding the current crisis on our southern border “there is a reason and a need for compassion” but this will accomplish nothing without strong bipartisan leadership.
Republicans and Democrats must first come together to close a loophole in a 2008 law that was designed to protect victims of human trafficking. Next, the U.S. has the moral responsibility to wage an educational campaign in Central America to inform those who are considering coming here that the journey is both dangerous and futile, because the United States will not tolerate the abuse of a well-intentioned law. Republican Senator John Cornyn and Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar have proposed legislation that would directly deal with this problem by treating immigrants from Central America the same as those from Mexico and Canada.
Securing the border in a meaningful way to prevent a future wave of illegal immigrants from entering the country is also critical to paving the way for comprehensive reform. Not only is this one of the highest priorities for conservative Republicans in the House and Senate but it also sends the message that the United States will not let in just anyone who can complete the journey from their home country. This should be a priority for Democrats as well, as a strong majority of Americans are in favor of strengthening the border.
Once Congress has addressed the crisis at-hand it can then shift its focus to passing a comprehensive reform package that allows people to enter this country legally that possess the skills and knowledge to open businesses, create jobs and grow the economy. If anything, this current crisis should not serve as a deterrent, but rather a preview to how Democrats and Republicans can work together on big issues.
It is imperative for President Obama to work with Congress to develop a bipartisan solution on immigration reform. The failure of the House and Senate to come to an agreement before the August recess is no excuse for unilateral action. A recent report by the Washington Post that the administration is considering such a move is disconcerting and would further alienate House and Senate Republicans who are already suspicious of the President’s willingness to faithfully execute the laws of the land. Governing by executive fiat would certainly backfire and make comprehensive reform more difficult.
As I have said in the past, execution is strategy. Democrats and Republicans have the opportunity to execute a strategy that shows the American people they are capable of tackling big issues. In order to do so, it will take bold action from the President and Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. Congress owes it to the millions of men, women and children who come to this country to seek a better life. There is no doubt that it will be difficult, but for a country founded by immigrants, we would be neglecting our shared heritage by failing to do anything else.
Fred Malek is founder and chairman of Thayer Lodging Group and founder of the American Action Network.