By Virginia Foxx
Christmas Eve 2009 was not that long ago.
That day, after much backroom dealing, a party-line vote by Senate Democrats gave the country the gift of ObamaCare. President Obama's trademark legislation charges the IRS and federal government at large with overseeing every doctor, patient, and health insurance plan. With even its most ardent supporters now describing ObamaCare as a "train wreck," America has since been trying desperately to return that gift.
If we've learned anything from ObamaCare it's that Washington isn't too good at "comprehensive" solutions. Massive laws inevitably fall short of promises and leave the country begging for real reform.
The fallibility of a comprehensive approach was also proved in 1986, the last time Washington passed a broad overhaul of immigration policy. In legislation heralded as the definitive solution to illegal immigration, amnesty was granted to millions in exchange for promises of tougher enforcement. Those promises weren't kept, and the legislation actually made the problem worse. Today, an estimated 11 million people reside in America illegally.
Because of Washington's failure, the country is still in need of immigration reform. The consequences of amnesty and open borders have brought the burden of illegal immigration to every state. Many applicants for legal entry to the United States have been stalled -- some for years. Headlines of families being separated pull at heartstrings and leave us wanting a better system.
As the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, I am thankful America has always opened her arms to people looking to build a better way for themselves and their families. But today America's immigration system is broken. It's not working for families; it's not working for employers; it's not working for taxpayers. However, the task before Congress is not to "just get this done" as President Obama urged in his State of the Union Address. There is too much at stake for that. We must approach immigration reform carefully and with ample public input.
History must serve as our guide to avoid the mistakes of 1986 and of ObamaCare. It is better to improve incrementally the status quo, than force through another well-intentioned, yet ineffective, "comprehensive" measure. The best way to move forward with reform is through regular order so every issue -- from enforcement and border security to E-Verify and visas -- can be fully vetted step-by-step for its alignment with America's national security and economic growth interests.
But where do we begin? Why not with what was abandoned after the 1986 reforms -- securing our porous borders once and for all?
Does border enforcement work? Absolutely. It just takes government doing its job. After San Diego's 14-mile stretch of fence was constructed in 1993, and additional resources were dedicated to the border, illegal crossing apprehensions decreased in some zones by as much as 95%.
Sustained border protection can stem illegal entry. Until we commit to fortifying our borders, illegal immigration will remain a threat to our security and prosperity.
Second, immigration reform must remove the incentive for illegal immigration. That means workplace enforcement. Those who knowingly hire illegal workers are complicit in the broken state of immigration in this country. America currently operates with an optional E-Verify system that allows employers to confirm whether prospective employees are, in fact, legal to hire. Congress should explore making E-Verify mandatory and consider consequences for employer violations that amount to more than a slap on the wrist.
Furthermore, immigration reform must also correct glaring problems with the current visa system. It is estimated that as many as 40 percent of illegal residents in this country have overstayed once-legal visas. The existing visa bureaucracy has to be overhauled in favor of a responsive system that tracks individuals upon entry and ensures timely exits. We should also give priority to those with sought-after skills in science and math career fields.
Importantly, America is a nation of immigrants, but it is also a nation of laws. Deference to the rule of law is a defining feature of our great country and part of what makes us a beacon of hope for those escaping corruption and poverty in their home countries. Amnesty undermines that and only serves to make immigration problems worse. Reform cannot simply forgive illegal entry. Though lax or even nonexistent enforcement provided an incentive, people made a choice to break the law. We should not condone, legalize, or reward that choice.
America welcomes more than one million legal immigrants into our country each year -- the most of any country in the world. While we are a compassionate nation that urges "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," the law guides our compassion too. It provides an ordered pathway for people to join our republic and it preserves a safety net meant to serve as a lifeline to citizens in need. To protect the solvency of our safety net we must ensure taxpayer-funded benefits are not given to those who entered the country illegally.
As the conversation over immigration reform continues, I support the decision of House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte to pursue incremental reform to ensure that past promises are finally fulfilled and strong immigration policy is arrived at through consensus. If Congress does this work openly, with cooperation from the American people, it is my hope to see a bipartisan immigration system built that rewards those who, for years, have been obeying the rule of law as they wait for a shot at the American Dream.
Founding Father James Madison said, "America was indebted to immigration for her settlement and prosperity." With sound policy laying the groundwork, America's enrichment, economic growth, and prosperity will certainly continue to be indebted, in part, to immigration for years to come.
Virginia Foxx (R) was elected in 2004 to represent North Carolina's fifth Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. She is a member of the House Republican leadership team where she serves in the capacity of Conference Secretary. Congresswoman Foxx is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.