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The United States needs a humane immigration system

Asylum-seekers receive food as they wait for news

Asylum-seekers receive food as they wait for news of policy changes at the border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 19. Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

For two decades a debate has swirled over legal and illegal immigration to the United States, that too often leaves the biggest questions unanswered.

Now, President Joe Biden is adding his vision.

The legislation he proposes includes many improvements that have been supported by both Republicans and Democrats in the past, albeit not often at the same time. And a lot of what he wants to change could be accomplished without legislation, because the federal courts have consistently ruled that a president has significant latitude over immigration. But Biden is right to go the legislative route, to seek a consensus on how to fix a broken system. The past cycle of executive orders loosening and tightening immigration and deportation has destabilized our policies, and caused confusion and hardships for individuals and industry.

Before parsing Biden’s plan, however, there are fundamental questions to address. Do we still want to be a nation welcoming new immigrants? Can a country that built itself into a uniquely successful society by welcoming nearly all comers continue to do so?

We say yes.

Arguments not new

The benefits of immigration for the United States do not belong only to some sepia-toned past, nor do they come only from the nations that have traditionally fed our population. The arguments against immigration are not new: the canards now used to justify closing the doors to immigrants from Central America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Africa are the same ones leveled against the Irish, Jews, Italians and Greeks in the past.

Immigrants do learn the language, if haltingly, but their children born here speak it perfectly. Immigrants do become "Americans," embracing our customs even as they maintain their own heritage. Newcomers generally work hard, obey the law, buy homes, create more jobs — especially in small businesses — than they fill, and enlist in the military in large numbers.

The immigrants who battle to get here are, in some sense, the most American of Americans, and we need more of them to fill the demographic and workforce needs of an aging populace.

So how do we get to a sane system that would accomplish these goals? Biden’s proposal is a start. It would:

  • Boost funding for immigration enforcement and border security with a focus on using technology to do so.
  • Create an 8-year path to citizenship for most people here illegally, if they are otherwise law-abiding, pass background checks and pay taxes.
  • Grant green cards offering permanent legal residency to many who have already made their lives here. More than 100,000 New Yorkers are undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, known as Dreamers. Also in this group are those who were granted Temporary Protected Status following natural disasters or armed conflict in their homelands. On Long Island, this group includes approximately 20,000 people from Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. Farmworkers would also be immediately eligible for green cards, and should be.
  • Allocate $4 billion to address the poverty and instability in Central America driving mass immigration, and create immigration processing centers in those countries to let applicants seek residency in their home nations.
  • Reunify families by allowing minors left behind in other countries when relatives immigrated to join their families here.
  • Increase quotas for refugee immigration and visas for work and study and a variety of other programs.
  • Tighten employment verification.
  • Crack down on smuggling and trafficking networks.
  • Improve and expand immigration courts.

Welcoming policy

These are, broadly speaking, the right measures. Ideally, they’d be passed as one comprehensive bill, but if it has to be broken into passable pieces, that could work, too.

The goal now is a humane, fair and welcoming policy that keeps criminals out while ushering aspiring Americans in, via laws our nation can feel are equitable and reasonable to enforce. That’s the litmus test that President Ronald Reagan’s comprehensive overhaul of immigration in 1986 failed to meet, souring many on later efforts to provide a path to citizenship for people who came here illegally after that amnesty. Under Reagan, 4.5 million undocumented immigrants were granted a path to citizenship on the premise that the new rules would be tough enough to stem the influx of more people who don’t follow the legal steps for residency.

Thirty-five years and 11 million more undocumented immigrants later, the lessons are clear. The worldwide hunger to become an American is unchecked, as poverty and violence in other nations contrast with the unlimited opportunity here.

The time has come to establish immigration laws and policies compassionate enough that we don’t balk at enforcing them, and strong enough to keep our nation safe. Biden’s plan, in both tone and text, is a strong start.

- The editorial board