Q. What is your view about how to reform immigration?
A. Our immigration laws are a mess. We haven’t had a major reform since 1986, when conservative President Ronald Reagan created a legalization program for undocumented immigrants. President Bill Clinton signed a major immigration law in 1996, but mostly it made it harder to get a green card.
My ideas for reform? Here’s a start.
We need a path to U.S. citizenship for undocumented workers. The simplest approach would be to move up the date for registry green cards. To qualify, an applicant would have had to have lived in the United States continuously since a cutoff date set by Congress and prove good moral character.
Registry has been part of our immigration laws since 1929. As part of the 1986 reform, Congress set a registry cutoff date of Jan. 1, 1972. To qualify under that law, you would have had to have been in the United States for more than 50 years. The advantage of updating the registry date is that the regulations, forms and interpretation of the law are set. We can debate a cutoff date, but updating registry is the simplest way to get green cards for millions of undocumented immigrants.
Next, we need to reform our legal immigration system, eliminating country quotas. These quotas limit how many people can immigrate each year from each country. It results in decades of long waits for immigrants from some countries. For workers, the wait is particularly long for applicants from India and China. If employers need the workers now, why make them wait years abroad or wait here in temporary status?
I have many other ideas about how to improve our immigration laws, but little hope that Congress will act anytime soon. When Reagan was president, immigration policy was part of a legitimate debate about what was best for our nation. Now, it is about politicians seeking political advantage — some blaming immigrants for all problems and calling for more restrictions, while others calling for generous programs that have no chance of becoming law.
I’m known by friends and colleagues as an optimist, but I think it will be many years before we see meaningful immigration reform.
Allan Wernick is an attorney and senior legal adviser to City University of New York’s Citizenship Now! project. Email questions and comments: allanwernick.com. Follow him on Twitter @awernick