Friday, August 4, 2017
The nation needs conversation, not combat, over immigration. As it has on virtually every other action it has attempted in its first six months, the Trump Administration, starkly represented through its spokesman Stephen Miller, is confronting instead of communicating. On immigration, this approach will cause pain and not achieve progress.
After enacting three major changes to immigration policy from 1986 to 1996, almost a quarter century has passed since the nation came together to examine whether our immigration policies serve the needs of America’s families, businesses, communities and national values. The current immigration system does not make sense to natives or newcomers and forces some families to wait decades to be reunited while tacitly permitting others entry to some of the most dangerous and difficult jobs in our society.
A national conversation should start with what our expectations are of immigrants, their sponsors and all our communities. Every nation gets to decide who and how many come in and what is required of them. Once those expectations become law, the government is obligated to enforce those provisions. Yet, presently, our laws fail to reflect a national consensus nor do they serve our economic, social, or other needs. To be complete, this conversation must recognize the contributions of newcomers, both when they arrive and as they become part of the American fabric over generations. It should also assess what investments we make in them to facilitate their integration into American society and enable them to become self-sufficient.
The Trump Administration’s immigration point system is short-sighted at best. A similar proposal was rejected by the U.S. Senate in the 1980s as an incomplete and inaccurate measure of our national needs and the value of newcomers to the nation. A point system demonstrates a lack of belief in the essence of America. From our Founding Fathers forward, generation after generation of newcomers have bettered themselves. Today, the son of an immigrant cook is our San Francisco mayor. Countless other immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants are leading the way in technology and other fields.
Perhaps of greatest dismay is the stark contradiction between the president’s announcement in the White House and the president’s actions at Mar-A-Lago Resort. Like others in the tourism industry, Trump Properties apply for H-2A non-immigrants — youngish temporary workers from abroad who work in hospitality at our nation’s resorts. The notion that Americans can not be found to do that work is unfathomable until you notice that the resort that rakes in tens of thousands of dollars a night offers waiters and waitresses barely a living wage.
One of the greatest sources of strength and adjustment for a newcomer is family. Yet, by eliminating the visa category for brothers and sisters and adult children of U.S. citizens, the Trump Administration proposal turns America’s back on people who have waited in the legal immigration line for as long as 25 years. At the same time, the point system would favor someone with no ties to the U.S. or job offer here as long as they have an advanced degree in any subject and score well on the English test.
When I was counsel to U.S. Senator Paul Simon on the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, the debates I observed were some of the most emotional and impassioned imaginable, both among the advocates and communities and among the Senators. In support of a generous immigration system, some Senators proudly described their ancestors’ gritty and determined journey to the U.S. while others recounted similar pasts but advocated closing the doors to “less worthy” immigrants today.
The president and both parties in Congress should vet proposals through a national commission that can convene public hearings and conduct studies to inform and shape recommendations for reform. The Commission approach was used successfully to help enact the 1986 and 1996 immigration reforms. Its aim was not to eliminate debate, but elevate it to promote politically difficult but necessary changes to our immigration laws.
Immigration very much defines America’s hearts. And wallets, too. Full discussion is warranted but the poisonous atmosphere at the bill’s announcement, over the last six months of the Trump Administration and from day one of the Trump Campaign will only serve to divide Americans more than we already are.
John Trasviña, Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, was general counsel to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution from 1987 to 1993 and Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices at the U.S. Department of Justice from 1997-2001.