We should get immigration reform right

By Orson Aguilar, January 30, 2013

It’s heartening that Congress and President Obama are addressing comprehensive immigration reform, something that’s long overdue. But everyone involved needs to make sure that any legislation really moves us toward a better, fairer system.

Politicians must avoid the temptation to sign off on a bad deal just to be able to say they did something about immigration.

So what makes a good deal? Four principles are essential:

First, immigration reform absolutely must include a clear path to citizenship for hard-working individuals and families who came to this country to work, contribute and build a better life.

Overwhelmingly, undocumented immigrants are people who have been working, paying taxes and building communities — to the extent that we’ve allowed them to. These folks are the American Dream incarnate, and we should not put so many obstacles in their way that their path to citizenship exists in name only.

Second, we should not create a group of second-class citizens through a guest-worker program. When immigrants come here in such a program, their lives are tied to their employer. If mistreated, they have virtually no ability to bargain, look for another job, or join a union — much less seek redress through our political system — making them easy targets for exploitation.

Third, we must make family reunification a priority. Current rules can force families in which just one partner is a U.S. citizen to separate for years, and it’s even harder for same-sex couples, who in most states cannot marry and whose marriages aren’t recognized by the federal government.

Finally, companies that want more visas for highly skilled workers should be required to submit annual, comprehensive plans to Congress showing how they plan to expand opportunities for people who are already here, especially women, Americans from underserved communities, and returning military veterans.

Silicon Valley firms, in particular, want to import highly educated tech professionals from abroad, and they should be able to get the help they need. But this industry, which is notoriously lacking in diversity, should also find ways to open doorways to lucrative tech careers for people already living in this country who haven’t had the opportunities they need and deserve.

The politics of immigration reform will be tough, and the passions on all sides are high. But a fairer system — one that’s good for all Americans as well as those seeking to come here — really is possible.

Orson Aguilar is executive director of The Greenlining Institute, www.greenlining.org. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.