Friday, February 15, 2013

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake: ‘Gang of 8’ migrant reform workable, fair


My Turn
Wed Feb 13, 2013 11:05 AM

Last month, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, the so-called Gang of Eight, offered a framework to address immigration reform. I’m proud to be a member of the group. Our proposal contains four major elements:

-- Securing the border before offering a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

-- Reforming our legal-immigration system to encourage economic growth.

-- Creating a temporary-worker program to provide access to future labor.

-- Strengthening employment-verification standards to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants.

One reason immigration reform failed in the past is the public’s understandable mistrust of the federal government to adequately address border security. That mistrust is especially relevant now, with drug- and human-smuggling rings clashing along the border.

Fortunately, the federal government has a model of what a secure border looks like. In the Yuma Sector, spanning 126 miles of the border, we have operational control, meaning that if someone attempts to cross the border, there’s a reasonable expectation he or she will be apprehended.

However, in the Tucson Sector, which is responsible for 262 miles of the border, we have nothing close to operational control.

The framework creates a commission made up of border state governors, attorneys general, and citizens who live and work along the border who will make recommendations as to what constitutes a secure border. The federal government’s failure to secure the border affects these citizens more than anyone else in the country, so because of their expertise and experiences, they should have input in defining what a secure border looks like.

Only after the border is secured can illegal immigrants begin the arduous, albeit fair, process of applying for citizenship. A pathway to citizenship has been, and continues to be, the most contentious element of immigration-reform proposals. There are some Republicans who believe that anything short of rounding up illegal immigrants and sending them back to their home countries is an amnesty

. I, as well as most Republicans, do not ascribe to this view.

To gain legal status and be given a shot at citizenship under the Gang of Eight’s framework, illegal immigrants must — among other penalties — pay fines, undergo background checks, and get in line behind those who are already in the legal-immigration process. The framework also addresses the problem, in an expedited manner, of immigrants who were minors when their parents brought them to the country illegally.

The framework would reform our legal-immigration system to encourage economic growth as well as give future immigrants an incentive to go through the legal process. The U.S. can remain competitive in the global economy by offering more visas to foreign-born graduates of American universities who have obtained advanced degrees in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. If we want to grow our economy, we need the next Google or Intel to be incorporated in the U.S., rather than overseas.

One major failure of the 1986 immigration-reform legislation was its lack of a mechanism to deal with the demand for future workers. Our framework would create a robust temporary-worker program to ensure employers have access to labor in order to grow their businesses and the economy.

But before they could hire temporary workers, employers would need to demonstrate that foreign workers would be filling jobs that Americans were unable or unwilling to fill.

With access to a qualified pool of labor, businesses have no excuse for circumventing immigration laws. A workable verification system that allows employers to check a new hire’s legal status, whether it be E-Verify or a new system, is needed so employers can comply.

Drafting a bipartisan framework on an issue as politically charged as immigration was not easy. It is going to be even more difficult converting the proposal into legislation and getting that bill through Congress. But I am optimistic about the prospect of finally enacting immigration reform this year.

As Arizonans know better than anyone, we cannot afford to wait any longer.

Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican, is beginning his first term in the Senate.

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