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  • Writer's pictureVoces Unidas de las Montañas

What interests does a broken immigration system serve?

We’ve been hearing a lot about immigration policy in the news lately. Or at least about the immigration “crisis,” anyway. Any discussion of genuine policy solutions is disingenuous at best.

It should come as no surprise that the most recent immigration proposal on Capitol Hill was defeated by the very party that proposed it. The truth of the matter is that no White House administration or Congress has ever really wanted to fix our broken immigration system, no matter what we might hear on the news. Otherwise, it would have happened by now.

Somehow we managed to put a man on the moon more than 50 years ago, but when it comes to orderly and humane immigration policy within this nation of immigrants, we continue to fall short. It begs the question: What interests does a broken system serve?

Politics aside, gaining a better understanding of the existing system, and how it’s broken, can help people understand how to meaningfully address the realities of immigration. But until our elected leaders find the political courage to tackle the root causes of the issue, we are destined to continue the same cycle of rhetoric and futility.

Let’s start with the century-old, irrational suggestion to “close the border.” Most Americans have never actually seen our southern border and may have no comprehension of just how raw and vast the terrain is in many parts of the nearly 2,000-mile border that separates Mexico and the U.S. As an immigrant who crossed the border twice before the age of 10, I can tell you it has never been able to be closed.

Daily commerce between our biggest international trading partner aside (yes, even bigger than China), any attempt to physically “shut down” the border is doomed to fail. No wall on Earth has ever stopped human migration. At best, walls simply create a false sense of accomplishment, while the issue continues unresolved.

For those who lack an authentic connection to this issue, it’s easy to latch onto the symbolic solution of simply locking the gate. But instead of wasting trillions of dollars on the illusion of security, we would be better served as a nation examining the reasons why people are being forced to migrate in the first place and dedicating our resources to those causes.

I have yet to meet an immigrant who says they want to leave their home and walk the 2,500 miles from Venezuela to Texas just for kicks. These are people facing catastrophic real-life situations that force them to make a desperate choice for survival.

Some are forced to migrate because of civil unrest, sometimes caused or funded by our nation. In other cases, immigration is caused by climate change, where weather patterns continue to displace people around the world, including Central and South America. Some are escaping poverty, lack of jobs, and lack of sustainable infrastructure, basic needs.

Focusing on fixing these problems would go much further toward reducing the flow of immigrants than a wall ever could. That means reconsidering economic and foreign policy in places where the U.S. has played a role in civil unrest. It means holding ourselves and other polluting nations accountable for the climate crisis that’s displacing farmers and ranchers from communities with no place else to go to find work. It means rededicating funds for a border wall to meaningful infrastructure where it’s needed in other nations, which also creates jobs.

Unfortunately, we get so caught up in treating the symptoms of immigration that we ignore the actual cure, even with prescriptions in hand. That includes remedying our ailing legal system, which hasn’t met our immigration needs for nearly a century.

Consider the fact that there are currently more than 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. Ultimately, it’s our current outdated and ineffective “legal immigration system” that created today’s reality. The system was never created to be forward-thinking and meet our future needs as a country, nor has it ever been adequately staffed to process even the current arbitrary, inadequate quotas of newcomers allowed to cross the border.

As it stands, our legal immigration system produces more irregular immigration than it does legal immigration. Until it’s reformed, we will continue to increase the number of undocumented residents simply to meet the demand for labor that entices people to find their way to the U.S.

If we actually wanted to fix and properly fund the system, we would hire the appropriate number of judges to properly staff our immigration courts and add the personnel needed to process the millions of cases pending review. We could also adjust quotas to reflect the realities of the job market, meeting industry demand in an orderly, humane, and legal system that also meets the needs of people. Instead, we have created a series of challenges that has left our nation with the responsibility of addressing the 11 million undocumented people who grow our crops, serve our meals, build our houses, clean our rooms, and fulfill countless other needs while being treated as second-class residents.

Yes, we now must figure out how to legalize the labor force that we have created through a lack of courage to fix a dysfunctional system. That’s why we say any immigration policy reform must include a pathway to citizenship because deportation is not a realistic option. Not only would it devastate our economy, but it would unjustly degrade those who have been working and contributing to American society for as long as 30 years, ripping apart families and friends woven into the fabric of so many communities.

Sadly, none of this is new. It may be fresh in the mind because of the politics of the day, but our immigration system is a long-suffering victim of fear and neglect. The bureaucracy that we call immigration in this country — and the political dysfunction that enabled it — amounts to pure incompetence, resulting in an undocumented population twice the size of Colorado that we’ve ignored for half a century.

But we can solve these problems. The issue is complex, but not that complicated. It will require a holistic approach that addresses the root causes of immigration, secures the border in a realistic capacity, and makes a dedicated commitment to the legal system, including legalizing the millions of long-term immigrant contributors who fuel our economies while existing in the shadows of society.

These are all human-made systems, after all. And humans can fix them. The only real question is whether we can find the political will to do so.

Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, non-profit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties. His column appears monthly at the Vail Daily.


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