Point of View

A chance for a fair, but realistic reform of US immigration

September 9, 2013 

  • Hear Chertoff

    WHAT: A conversation with Michael Chertoff

    WHEN: 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10

    WHERE: N.C. Farm Bureau, 5301 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh 27612

    MORE INFO: nando.com/chertoff

Any new immigration system must be fair to those who have conscientiously obeyed our laws, must have a greater focus on matching our economic needs with workers from abroad and have greater accountability: In such a reformed system, stricter penalties will be justified when businesses of any size choose to disobey the law and hire workers here illegally.

Reforming our nation’s broken immigration system is not only a critical national priority, it also is important to the future of North Carolina.

According to recent estimates, there are more than 370,000 unauthorized immigrants living today in the Tar Heel state. From 1990 to 2010, the number of unauthorized immigrants in North Carolina rose more than 11 fold, one of the steepest increases in the nation.

North Carolina attracts many immigrants who come through legal means. The Research Triangle Park, the state’s world-class universities and its vibrant agricultural economy function as powerful magnets of opportunity. Over the years, North Carolina residents have welcomed these individuals and have benefited from their many contributions.

Nevertheless, the challenges facing our immigration system are substantial and growing. More than 11 million unauthorized immigrants live and work among us without the ability to fully participate in our society. Control of the country’s borders remains unfinished despite much progress to improve border enforcement. We continue to see substantial numbers of visitors who enter the country legally but overstay their visas.

On top of these concerns, our legal immigration system is inadequate to meet the needs of a dynamic, 21st century economy. After years of complacency and false hopes, we must finally come to grips with these problems and design effective, durable solutions.

As a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force, I am heartened to see Congress considering immigration reform. To encourage this process, the task force has developed a set of principles that demonstrate there is plenty of common ground on which a final deal can be struck.

Like many in Congress, the task force acknowledges that improving border security is a central concern. The recent bill passed by the U.S. Senate authorized the hiring of 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, the construction of 700 miles of additional border fencing and the use of more unmanned aerial vehicles to detect illegal border crossings. As the legislative process unfolds, we look forward to other proposals to strengthen our border-enforcement capabilities.


But it is a common misconception that most unauthorized immigrants sneak across our Southern border with Mexico. In fact, almost half of the unauthorized immigrants currently residing in the U.S. came here legally but overstayed their visas and never left. Today, we cannot fully verify whether temporary visitors leave the country before their visas expire.

Going forward, we must put in place scientifically valid measures to assess the extent to which the government is controlling the flow of unauthorized immigration both at the border and within the country by those overstaying their visas. The results of these assessments should be subject to an independent audit and published periodically. Stronger measurement systems and greater transparency should improve the performance of and enhance confidence in our nation’s immigration-enforcement officials.

Any new immigration system must be fair to those who have conscientiously obeyed our laws. With the exception of individuals brought to the U.S. as children, no unauthorized immigrants should receive a green card until the applications of those who have already applied for visas and have been waiting patiently outside the country have been fully processed.

Our nation’s legal immigration system must be strengthened with a greater focus on matching our economic needs with workers from abroad, both highly skilled and low skilled. A more nimble, flexible system that identifies those sectors of the economy where true labor shortages exist and allows legal immigrants promptly to meet the demand for qualified workers is squarely in our national interest.

But with increased flexibility comes greater accountability: In such a reformed system, stricter penalties will be justified when businesses of any size choose to disobey the law and hire workers here illegally.

With respect to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, doing nothing is not an option. In fact, maintaining the status quo amounts to an amnesty program without the legal formalities.

Consistent with American traditions of fairness and rule of law, it is possible to develop a system that allows undocumented immigrants to pay penalties, pass a background check and fully comply with other requirements to have the opportunity to apply eventually for citizenship.

With immigration reform in sight, our nation’s leaders must put aside any partisan, political considerations and work diligently to narrow their differences. There are plenty of good ideas on the table. It is now time to put them to work for the American people.

Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force.

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