Border is not the only issue in effort to control immigration

By Keith Peterson
Guest columnist
Updated 1/9/2019 9:33 AM
  • Jeff Knox/jknox@dailyherald.comKeith PetersonDaily Herald guest columnist.

    Jeff Knox/jknox@dailyherald.comKeith PetersonDaily Herald guest columnist.

As the government shutdown moves into its third week, the focus of the debate is over whether an extended multibillion-dollar barrier at our southern border will reduce illegal immigration.

However, another key line of defense is our embassies around the globe where consular officers decide who and who does not get a visa to enter the U.S., keeping in mind that a visa does not give you the right to enter the U.S. but only the right to apply for entry at the border.

The State Department is one of the agencies of the U.S. government that is currently unfunded as part of the shutdown, though consular officers overseas and their local staffs cannot be sent home and so are working without pay. Yet other consular duties are most assuredly being affected.

Note also that citizens of 38 countries are part of the visa waiver program, and they do not require a visa to enter the United States, any more than an American citizen requires a visa to enter, say, the United Kingdom or France. This is important to note because as we debate what to do about the estimated 10.7 million undocumented individuals in the U.S., we should keep in mind that, according to detailed studies by Pew and the Migration Institute, somewhere between 42 percent and 45 percent of those are individuals who entered the U.S. legally and then just stayed.

Pew's study says the number of undocumented individuals in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million and has fallen to 10.7 million in part because of the Great Recession, better economic opportunities in Mexico, and tougher border enforcement in the United States. President Obama earned the moniker "Deporter in Chief," and the current administration has accelerated that process.

The Trump administration has framed border security as a matter of national security, and that is most certainly true. However, there are other ways to think about security and immigration. For example, when I studied national security at the National Defense University, one of our seminars was about America's agriculture system.

Despite the fact that the number of temporary visas for agricultural workers has probably topped 180,000 this past year, the needs of our food system are far greater than that. So, according to Cornell University, about half of those who pick apples, harvest crops and work in slaughter houses are undocumented. Our food system could not function without them.

We know quite a bit about undocumented persons in America. Eighty percent of them work and pay taxes, and they pay more taxes than they claim in public benefits. On average, they have been in the U.S. 13 years and many have U.S.-born children. About 15 percent of all construction workers in the U.S. are undocumented, and there are substantial numbers making hotel beds and working in restaurants. Most often they take jobs American workers don't want and at lower wages.

Even members of the public who support expanded immigration believe that people should enter our country legally, but just beyond our borders are metaphorical signs that read "help wanted." Folks on the left, supported by unions, have often opposed more work visas for foreigners. Many on the right, supportive of business, are loath to punish businesses for hiring the undocumented.

With the Congress split between Republicans and Democrats, it would seem that nothing of substance can be accomplished in the next two years. However, immigration has always been one of those issues that must be done in a bipartisan fashion.

Economists remind us that the two fundamental drivers of economic growth are increased productivity and an expanding workforce. As such, immigration will continue to be an important factor for the health of our economy. Bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform was never more urgent.

Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.

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