The third component of successful reform is legalizing at least some of the peaceful unauthorized immigrants already here. This is a difficult but essential portion of reform. Unauthorized immigrants could come forward, pay a fee and a fine, and get checked against criminal and national security systems. If they are peaceful and pay some fines and fees, they should be able to work and live without fearing deportation. A long path to citizenship is preferable, but permanent residency, work authorization and no recourse to welfare benefits are the minimum conditions that should be met.
For immigration reform to be a long-term success, the nature of immigration must be understood. What drives immigrants across international borders is opportunity; a chance for a better life, higher pay and the ability to provide for their families. Immigrants will continue to come for these reasons regardless of stricter enforcement laws or a longer fence. That’s why a legal system made up of the three components laid out above is a system that can really work.
Not only does the political will seem to be present for immigration reform to happen, history proves it can be done in an election year. The last several immigration reforms all happened during election years — 1986, 1990 and 1996. It can happen again this year. Moreover, if reform focuses on building a workable guest worker program, targeting enforcement to security and health threats and legalizing immigrants already here, 2014’s reform could prove to be the last one for years to come.
Alex Nowrasteh is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.