Our immigration system is clearly broken. We have 11 million aspiring Americans living in the shadows.
There is no simple explanation for how we got to this point, and there is no single reason why undocumented immigration happens in the first place.
What we know for sure is that we need to get these 11 million out of the shadows so they can contribute to our society and economy. This can only happen with a pathway to citizenship. We cannot create a permanent under-class by offering just legal status.
We also just can’t round up 11 million people and deport them. It just wouldn’t be economically feasible. Not only would the cost of such an enforcement scheme be outrageous, but you would be removing a substantial portion of our workforce, crippling our economy.
Undocumented immigrants arrive to the United States for the same reasons that our ancestors did, for economic opportunity and to provide for a better life for their families.
They are part of our communities, they are our neighbors. In fact, 61% of all undocumented immigrants have been in the country for 10 years or longer. Nationwide, undocumented immigrants make up 5.2% of our workforce, and in certain states, that number is much higher.
Our legal immigration system simply cannot handle the demands placed upon it. Some 1 million immigrants enter the country each year as lawful permanent residents, while another 4.6 million are stuck in backlogs.
Because the number of new immigrants admitted each year is based on numbers set by Congress in 1990, those admissions fail to reflect the legitimate demands for family unification and changes in workforce needs that have occurred over the last twenty years. For some countries, the wait is almost 20 years.
For many other people, there simply were not enough visas—either permanent or temporary—which led them to come to the U.S. without authorization when the economy was booming and jobs were waiting. Without a well-regulated and fair system for determining levels of immigration, people who have no chance at standing in line may feel that coming without permission is their only option—and many are willing to take it, no matter the dangers.
Creating a pathway to citizenship that acknowledges the integral role many of these immigrants play in our communities is key. This requires lawmakers to focus on fair ways to bring those who have lived here undocumented for years into full legal participation in their adopted home, which is the only thing separating them from truly being American.