After Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the United States gave citizenship to approximately 3 million undocumented immigrants but did little to address why we had 3 million in the first place. We didn’t secure our borders, didn’t impose strict penalties on employers who hired unauthorized workers, and didn’t modernize our visa system to actually have a legal way to hire workers. In short, the bill did little to ensure America would not find itself in this situation again. The rest is history.
We knowingly as a country—as businesses and individuals—continued to hire unauthorized immigrants as they continued to enter the country illegally. Essentially, not much was done about it for many years as we turned a blind eye to the holes in our immigration system.
Is this the fault of the undocumented immigrant, the government, which did little to enforce the law, or the businesses that illegally continued to hire unauthorized workers? I believe there is enough blame to go around.
The reality is many of those here illegally have worked here for many years, brought their children or had children who are now U.S. citizens, and are already an integral part of our communities. They are law-abiding neighbors, holding down good jobs, educating their children, paying taxes, coaching Little League, and serving on the front lines of our military. In so many ways, they contribute greatly to this country, which was built as a land of immigrants.
We now find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants and send them home as some have suggested, or do we find a solution to bring them out of the shadows so they can work legally and get on an earned pathway to citizenship, should they choose to do so?
The first option would disrupt our economy significantly, cost millions of dollars to implement, uproot families, and separate many parents from their children. Since we are all complicit in paying little attention to our immigration system’s failures, I don’t believe this is a good solution and doesn’t speak to who we are as Americans.
That’s why I support the Partnership for a New American Economy’s Reason for Reform campaign, which launched Aug. 3 and calls on everyone affected by our outdated immigration system to demand action from our elected leaders. Coinciding with the campaign’s launch is a national day of action, with over 50 events taking place across the country and the release of new, state-specific research highlighting the economic contributions of immigrants in each state, as well as our nation’s capital.
Illegal immigration is a profound problem for our country that undermines our system of law and order. If it’s unrealistic to deport 11 million immigrants, then it is harmful and counterproductive to keep them living in the shadows. We need to agree on a realistic way for immigrants here illegally to pay a penalty, get in line, and get right with the law, which will not only promote law and order, but will give us a large economic boost in return.
The reality is that many of the 11 million undocumented people living in this country are an untapped work force wanting to blossom. In Arizona, 4 percent of our population is currently undocumented, and
80 percent of that share is between the ages of 25 and 64, or prime working age. We need to be creative in our thinking to create a pathway—perhaps through a unique work visa—so they can stay and continue to contribute to our national economy.
The skills gap in today’s work force is another reason America needs immigration reform. If we want Arizona to thrive economically, we need an educated and skilled work force. This will not only enhance our ability to compete in the global economy but will improve the quality of life for all Arizonans. Today, Arizona has almost 10 open jobs in the STEM sectors (science, technology, engineering, and math) to every one unemployed Arizona STEM worker. This labor gap is holding back our homegrown companies from growing to their true potential.
If we were to invest heavily in career, technical education, and work force development programs that ensure post-secondary readiness, we could properly educate more young people who can graduate from high school career-ready. Tax credits could be granted to employers who send their employees to school for industry-recognized certifications, for example. This would accelerate the closing of the skills gap our country has within both the skilled trades and professional fields. This investment would help people—both native- and foreign-born—become economically independent. We need policies that will rebuild what used to be one of America’s greatest strengths: its middle class.
We have a choice to make. We can go down the road of throwing support to those who want to send 11 million people home, or we could embrace the situation we helped create and find innovative, constructive solutions that will address the serious problems of illegal immigration and today’s skills gap in our work force. Reasonable reform will benefit us all. It is time to show the political will to turn in that direction.
Doug Pruitt is chairman of the board of Sundt Construction. He is a member
of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of mayors and business leaders who support immigration reforms that will create jobs for Americans today.