Like most Americans, I am a descendant of immigrants and a grateful beneficiary of the opportunities available to our nation’s citizens. My grandparents emigrated from Mexico in the early 20th century seeking a better life, and they found it working in the fields and dairy farms of Texas. Diversity is one of the great strengths of the United States — diversity fueled by the migration of ethnicities, cultures and ideas.
Today, however, there is virtually universal agreement that our immigration process is broken. While security on our southern border has improved in the past decade, it remains inadequate in a post-9/11 world. Many employers hire undocumented workers with little concern about prosecution. Thousands of people cross our borders illegally believing they will not be arrested, expecting instead to receive benefits and, eventually, amnesty.
Based on what I have observed, most illegal immigrants come to America to provide for their families, and by most accounts, they contribute to our economy. Nevertheless, we are a nation of laws. When people break the law with impunity, it encourages further disobedience and breeds further disrespect for the rule of law.
Obama administration officials went to court recently to stop Arizona from enforcing federal immigration laws through a newly enacted state law, arguing that the Constitution gives them sole authority in this arena. How the courts will ultimately decide this question is unclear, but with the federal government’s claim of authority comes responsibility — and so far, our national leaders have failed us.
President George W. Bush pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, but Republican members of Congress refused to join him. Although President Obama and the present congressional leadership have used their majority to enact sweeping health-care and financial reform, they seem to lack the will to try to pass comprehensive immigration legislation. Even my apolitical and saintly 78-year-old mother wonders whether the Democrats are keeping this issue on the table for political reasons, hoping that Republicans will propose enforcement measures that alienate Hispanic voters.
Most recently, some politicians and concerned citizens have expressed a desire to amend the 14th Amendment of our Constitution, which says in Section 1, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Proponents want to discourage undocumented mothers from crossing our borders to give birth to children derogatorily referred to as “anchor babies,” who by law are American citizens. Such a change is difficult to carry out, as it should be, requiring a new amendment ratified by three-quarters of the states.
I do not support such an amendment. Based on principles from my tenure as a judge, I think constitutional amendments should be reserved for extraordinary circumstances that we cannot address effectively through legislation or regulation. Because most undocumented workers come here to provide for themselves and their families, a constitutional amendment will not solve our immigration crisis. People will certainly continue to cross our borders to find a better life, irrespective of the possibilities of U.S. citizenship.
As the nation’s former chief law enforcement officer and a citizen who believes in the rule of law, I cannot condone anyone coming into this country illegally. However, as a father who wants the best for my own children, I understand why these parents risk coming to America — especially when there is little fear of prosecution. If we want to stop this practice, we should pass and enforce comprehensive immigration legislation rather than amend our Constitution.
We need a new immigration policy that complements our national security policy as well as our economic policy. In a post-9/11 world, we must know who is coming into this country and why — we cannot have true security if we do not secure our borders. Our policy should reinforce respect for the law through effective enforcement that includes a streamlined deportation process and tougher penalties on employers that hire undocumented workers.
Our immigration policy should also promote commerce and strengthen our economy. The reality is that there are jobs Americans do not want, and there are skilled jobs for which Americans are not available. Our policy should include a more robust temporary-worker program (without more bureaucracy) that attracts both skilled and unskilled workers to sustain our economy.
Finally, our immigration policy must be practical, enforceable and capable of effective implementation without enormous delays or many mistakes. It must also be fair to those who follow the rules.
As our nation’s first Hispanic attorney general, I have seen both the beauty of our tradition of immigration as well as the threats that come with a broken system. We need to fix the process. This work will be complicated, because the best solution will surely affect families, foreign policy, national security, our economy — and will touch upon the very essence of who we are as a country. It will take courage to pass meaningful legislation, but to do less or to take shortcuts places our security at risk. Americans expect and deserve better of their leaders in Washington.
Alberto R. Gonzales served as White House counsel and U.S. attorney general in the George W. Bush administration. He is a visiting professor of political science at Texas Tech University.