Our broken immigration system has been bad for the country and a source of political division for well over a decade. Some want a so-called “comprehensive” solution to the crisis, but the prospects for it actually happening (let alone being a solution) are not good amidst our divisions. It’s time to rise above the existing gridlock and build a national consensus based on national security.
The history of American immigration has almost always been politically charged. In the 1850s, the Native American Party arose to challenge the influx of Irish Catholics moving to America. Today, immigration from south of our border is producing intense reactions and division as well. Whatever we thought about immigration in the past must now change after 9/11, and more recently, the terror attack in San Bernardino.
Solutions to our immigration problem have proven illusive over the years during this divided era in which we live. In significant part, that is because the current gridlock favors Democrats politically and Republicans have failed to devise a strategy that gets past how they are viewed on the issue.
As for the particulars of the issue: Given the intensity of our divisions, simply saying you are or are not for a path to citizenship is unlikely to produce a solution. We need an actual strategy for achieving success. Given the national security implications of today’s impasse, now is the time to break it and begin solving the crisis. Here is how.
We need to abandon the notion that comprehensive immigration reform legislation is either viable or desirable. The odds that we can build a consensus around such a large bill are beyond remote. The pursuit of such legislation only plays into gridlock. We also know from other pieces of controversial legislation, like Obamacare, that such mega-bills contain provisions than can cause more problems than they solve.
We need to adopt a step-by-step approach. That starts with a greater public awareness about the national security aspects of our immigration woes and our visa crisis. The San Bernardino attack made it clear that our visa system is broken and the current federal government is not keeping us safe.
The Republicans in Congress need to send a visa reform bill to the president. It is well known that as much as half of those who are here illegally are here because they are overstaying their visas without consequences. Remember, some of the 9/11 conspirators overstayed their visas. The idea that we have lost track of millions who have overstayed their visas, and that one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Tashfeen Malik, came here as easily as giving a non-existent address, should alarm us all.
The visa reform bill should set a deadline — say 90 days — for those overstaying their visas to leave. If they leave prior to that deadline, they should be allowed to leave with their possessions. If, however, they refuse to leave, the government should actively find them, deport them and fine them the amount of the costs involved.
Starting with visa overstays is smart for several reasons. First, there is no voting constituency for those overstaying their visas. Therefore, opposition to such a reform would be minimal. Second, those who overstay come from all parts of the world, so enforcement cannot be inferred to be against any one group. Avoiding that stigma, in this charged political atmosphere, is necessary to actually start resolving the immigration crisis.
Republicans also need to start making the case that in light of today’s national security concerns, we need to secure our northern border, our airports and water ports as much as our southern border. By placing the issue in its more federal and now essential national security context after proving they can begin the process with visa reform, Republicans will have a greater chance of building the necessary consensus for moving forward to bring the necessary resources to each port of entry/border into the United States.
In general, we need a new approach to our immigration problems. In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, public safety not only requires a fresh approach; it also gives us the opportunity to come together for a common goal. Rather than trying to solve every problem related to immigration at once, i.e. crafting a “perfect” bill, it is time to take a step-by-step approach.
Starting with visa reform is that necessary first step and can be done today. If done effectively, it can begin to rebuild trust in our government from which additional steps can be taken. The time for division is over. The victims of San Bernardino and 9/11 deserve no less.
Tom Del Beccaro is the former Chairman of the California Republican Party and current candidate for U.S. Senate.