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Immigration Reform: What "Step-by-Step" Should Mean

brown gavel with gold and american flagImmigration reform may be on Congress’s agenda in 2014, and the latest hints have included some Members of Congress referring to a “step-by-step” approach. What they mean by that is crucial to whether such reforms could be a success.

There are good reasons to reform the U.S. immigration system—and there are good ways to do it as well. A good “step-by-step” reform should focus where there is widespread agreement—reforming our legal immigration system to work better and restoring the integrity of U.S. law by enforcing current immigration laws. We can move those pieces first—take a few steps now—and save for another day the most controversial issues, like amnesty for illegal immigrants.

The “step-by-step” approach some are talking about is not this reasonable start on the areas of agreement, however. Proponents of amnesty have picked up the phrase, and they mean passing individual bills that add up to the same policies, including amnesty, in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill.

The President and others who insist on amnesty will make it much more difficult to reform our convoluted, unfair, and illogical legal immigration system.

Why is amnesty such a problem? Because it is unfair, costly, and it will not work.

It is unfair to those who came to the United States the right way—and it is unfair to those who are waiting patiently for their turn. A recent Pew poll of Hispanic (51 percent to 43 percent) and Asian Americans (48 percent to 44 percent) revealed that they, too, think “granting legal status to undocumented immigrants” would “reward illegal behavior.”

It is costly because those granted amnesty under the Senate bill that passed (S. 744) would qualify in time for the full menu of government welfare and entitlement programs that are already massively overburdened. Even if they were legalized through amnesty, currently illegal immigrants would pay far less in taxes than they would receive in government services and benefits, especially when they reach retirement age. As Milton Friedman noted, you cannot have both open borders and a welfare state. That is especially true in our day: Some two-thirds of federal spending today is for transfer payments (taking from some Americans and giving it to others), compared with just 3 percent in 1935.

It also won’t work. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted that under S. 744, which supposedly had tough border security provisions and improved employer verifications, millions more net illegal immigrants would come and stay in the next two decades. Within a generation, we would find ourselves in this same position all over again, only in a worse financial situation—with taxpayers struggling to support these millions of immigrants.

Amnesty isn’t the answer, but a good step-by-step approach would start with some reforms that have widespread appeal. We should make it easier for those who are willing to play by the rules and able to contribute to the economy to come to America.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, John Dearie and Courtney Geduldig point out that “immigrants with advanced degrees from U.S. universities working in science and technology” bring innovation, entrepreneurship, and job creation to the U.S. with them. The authors argue sensibly for fixing our broken legal immigration system to allow America to attract and retain the world’s best talent (like other countries are doing). This is one of the business community’s—especially the tech sector’s—top reasons for reform.

Reforming our legal system in this way has the potential for political agreement, because making it easier for entrepreneurs and high-skilled immigrants does not present the same problems as amnesty. This type of reform is neither unfair (the new system would be orderly and not reward those who break the law) nor costly (high-skilled immigrants are likely to contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits and services).

Now is the time to push a realistic path for immigration reform: reforming our legal immigration system and restoring the integrity of our immigration laws. Insisting on amnesty will wreck chances for reform this year. We do not need to wait for amnesty to give these commonsense solutions a try in 2014.

Read more: Heritage’s Positive Path to Immigration and Border Security Reform

Derrick Morgan

Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at The Heritage Foundation.

The Foundry | Heritage Foundation

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