Where were you when you celebrated your 18th birthday? I was in college, getting an education and looking forward to my future. Yet many young Hispanics have less to look forward to on that milestone birthday.
Since late January, it’s been reported that undocumented Central American youths who arrived in the United States unaccompanied and recently turned 18 years of age are being targeted for arrest and deportation by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency.
This anguishing situation is a typical byproduct of our country’s longstanding and unresolved immigration debate. Our policymakers are essentially divided between support for amnesty or deportation, with little room in the middle. This division means an uncertain future for the over 11 million Hispanic undocumented immigrants across the country — particularly the young.
It doesn’t need to be like this. There are plenty of policies on which all sides can agree, and achievable individual reforms that would protect our nation’s security while allowing immigrants access to opportunity.
Regardless of party or political persuasion, it’s common sense to protect our borders and ensure people pass through them in an organized way. Creating a more organized, functional security at the border is a logical first step toward reform. Knowing who is coming into our country allows us to protect those on either side of the border.
This is especially important for children. The number of unaccompanied minors flowing into our country across the Rio Grande border alone reached a staggering 17,000 in recent months. Yet faulty child protection policies at the border have allowed children arriving here to end up performing forced labor or in the care of abusive sponsors. This is only possible because of the flawed laws of our border protection system.
Having worked as an advocate for abused and neglected children, this sickens me.
Fixing our country’s visa system is another reform that should stand alone. Obtaining an H-2A or H-2B visa — for agricultural or seasonal workers, respectively — too often means jumping over endless hurdles and waiting for years. The number of workers eligible for the latter is even limited by a quota.
We shouldn’t place these arbitrary restrictions and quotas on people seeking an honest living in our country. Regardless of their profession or level of education, immigrant job-seekers can strengthen and contribute to our economy. According to IHS Economics, Hispanics are already poised to represent over 40 percent of U.S. job growth from now to the end of the decade. That growth could be greater if we reevaluated the way we welcome people to work in our country.
We can enact a market-based program that connects job-seekers from abroad with opportunities here at home. Getting out of the way of partnerships between employers and employees and leasing restrictions on the number of people allowed to obtain visas will help create a stronger workforce, while granting those workers much-needed legal certainty of their status here.
Enhanced, smarter border security and a more robust visa process for foreign workers should be non-controversial. Both reforms would encourage safe and legal immigration. Yet when it comes to Congress and the president, these ideas seem to be non-starters.
Policymakers in Congress have put themselves in a box putting all their hopes on comprehensive immigration reform packages rather than individual, incremental reforms. Yet by trying to do too much at once, these packages inevitably become political quagmires. The aftermath is legislative gridlock that weakens the chances of reform.
Congress’s indecision is bad, but what the president is doing is even worse. His favored immigration policy is issuing executive orders. These unilateral decisions are usually legally questionable and temporary, creating further uncertainty for immigrants. And actions like the recent wave of deportations destroy thousands of Hispanic futures for the sake of making a political statement.
These two failed approaches negatively complement each other, creating a downward spiral for immigration reform. The president’s decision to extend Deferred Action for Parents of Arrivals (DAPA) ensured that Congress would choose to avoid taking any steps on immigration until the protracted legal challenge is resolved. And when Congress fails to enact one of its omnibus packages, the president feels emboldened to enact more executive orders.
Nobody expects a political utopia where Congress and the president act in perfect harmony, but it shouldn’t take a utopia to accomplish common sense, incremental reforms. With the right focus, lawmakers can help many young Hispanic immigrants look forward to their 18th birthday as part of a bright, safe, and better future in America.
Marilinda Garcia is national spokesperson for The LIBRE Initiative.