Immigration is as American as apple pie. Our nation was founded by people who were escaping religious and political persecution, and that history informs what it means to be American. Our nation also has a terrible legacy of slavery and exploitation of immigrants, and we continue to struggle to realize our ideals of equality and opportunity for all. Today, about 43.3 million foreign-born people live in the US – more than 30,000 of them in Indiana’s ninth district. Immigrants contribute about $2 trillion to the U.S. economy every year, they own 28 percent of small businesses, and they have founded more than 40 percent of our Fortune 500 companies. Fewer than one in five immigrant families is below the poverty line. Immigrants are less likely than the average American to commit crimes or to be incarcerated.
As they always have, immigrants come to our country eager to contribute and build a better life. Throughout our history, when immigrants succeed, our nation succeeds. But our current immigration laws don’t reflect our tradition of America as a beacon of liberty to the world. There is no question that we need to enforce our nation’s borders. But recent actions by the Trump administration signal a move to a militarized border and a militarized country that are completely unprecedented in our history. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was already acting excessively during the Obama administration, but in the Trump administration, the abuses have gotten much worse and more frequent. The president has vastly expanded who is considered a priority for deportation, targeting sanctuary cities, and conducting mass raids to detain immigrants who pose no safety or security threat. We are ripping families apart, we are allowing racial profiling to proliferate in everyday life, and we are undermining the due process of law. Congress must immediately conduct a top-down review of ICE, and insist on reforms so that law-abiding immigrants do not live in terror.
Reforming ICE, however, is just part of the solution. We must immediately enact a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people living peacefully in this country. In a recent poll, 83 percent of Americans favored a pathway to citizenship. We only need our dysfunctional federal government to catch up. Giving immigrants legal status would provide a huge boost to the economy, and result in a safer, more humane country. What we have now is essentially a caste system, and that is un-American.
We have a legal and moral responsibility to treat all people within our borders with humanity and decency. To do otherwise is not just cruel, it is counterproductive, because it forces otherwise law-abiding people into the shadows. We must reduce our reliance on private detention centers, which have repeatedly failed to prevent suicides, report and respond to sexual assault, and provide decent medical care. And it means replacing detention for low-risk immigrants with more humane procedures like the Family Case Management Program – which had a 99 percent compliance rate and cost 12 percent as much as detention, before it was canceled by the current administration. We are a nation of laws, and our laws ought to live up to our Hoosier values of generosity and fairness.
This is especially true for the laws affecting our DREAMers -- undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children. 81 percent of Americans want Dreamers to be allowed to remain in the US. But since President Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy last year, federal policy has been to deport anyone who can be deported – no matter how old they were when they came here. That’s not just a betrayal of our values. It’s also bad for Indiana, because deporting all 15,000 Dreamers working here will cost this state more than half a billion dollars per year.
That is why I support the DREAM Act. This bipartisan bill would grant conditional permanent residency to Dreamers for eight years, after which they would become legal permanent residents by completing higher education, military service, or employment requirements. This is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do: regularizing our DREAMers’ status would grow Indiana’s economy by more than 170 million dollars per year, and doing that while improving their access to education would add almost 600 million dollars per year.
None of this means that we should neglect immigration enforcement, or fail to ensure the security of our border. But the plain fact is that our border is secure. Border crossings and the number of people stopped at the border are both at record lows. More Mexican immigrants are returning home than arriving in the USA, and the total number of undocumented immigrants has actually declined by more than a million since 2007. Moreover, as of the most recent study in 2014, two-thirds of new unauthorized arrivals entered the country legally and overstayed their visas, rather than crossing the border.
Building a wall under these circumstances, or sending troops to the border, is a waste of money and a terrible message to send to the world. Our existing border fences cost between $2.8 million and $3.9 million per mile. Expanding that to a wall, and covering the whole border, would cost about $70 billion. We should spend that money repairing our infrastructure and educating our children. Most undocumented immigrants overstay a travel visa: a wall will do nothing to keep most people out. For that much money, we could provide solar power to 46.5 million US households, or build more than 4,100 new elementary schools. Wouldn’t those be better investments than spending billions on fortifying a border that the Department of Homeland Security itself described last year as “more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before.”
Similarly, we spend more on immigration enforcement than on all other federal law enforcement activities combined – and all to police a group of people who commit crimes at a lower rate than the average American. I believe that our immigration enforcement system should be focused on people who are engaged in terrorism, convicted of felonies, or involved with gangs – not just anybody who is caught driving with a busted tail light. In service of that goal, we should lift the cap on the number of U visas, which are issued to undocumented immigrant witnesses and victims of violent crimes who cooperate with law enforcement. At the moment, the number of those visas is capped at 10,000 in the face of more than 110,000 applications. Lifting the cap would help ICE to do its real job: keeping all Americans safe, not terrorizing immigrant communities where 16 million people live in mixed-status families.
Finally, we must recognize that we live in a globalized world. We cannot keep the rest of the world out, nor should we ever try. A billion men, women, and children are on the move. America has always flourished in moments like this by taking in refugees who flee their homes in search of a better life upon our shores. And yet the Trump administration has set its annual target for refugee admissions to the lowest level in modern history. We now resettle fewer refugees per capita than Monaco, in the middle of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. At the same time, the administration has proposed cutting legal immigration by nearly 22 million people over five decades, and ending family reunification for adult children, parents, and siblings. This is shocking: family unification has been the cornerstone of America’s immigration law since the late 1800s, and it has never led to out-of-control “chain migration,” because US citizens and green card holders cannot sponsor relatives outside their own nuclear families.
Instead of dividing families and rejecting the world’s most desperate people, we should be addressing the 4.4 million-person family reunification backlog and restoring the Obama administration’s target for refugee admissions. Surely that would be more consistent with Hoosier values family and hospitality – just as reforming our immigration enforcement system reflects our respect for fairness and refusing to pay for a pointless wall shows our commitment to fiscal responsibility. Rational and compassionate policies are the only sure foundation for a truly American immigration system.