Other Opinion: Hard questions on immigration demand straight answers

America's immigration policies are broken, and there's little sign in Washington of a bipartisan desire to fix them. President Donald Trump rages on about the crisis at the southern border, but has failed to come forward with plans that would end it. When it comes to effective proposals, Democrats haven't been much better. Most of the contenders for the party's presidential nomination can't even bring themselves to admit that illegal immigration is a serious problem.

Both parties need to answer three questions. First, what does the U.S. owe refugees and asylum seekers who are desperately seeking the safety that their own countries can't provide? Second, how many immigrants, and what kind, does the U.S. need to strengthen its economy and advance the well-being of all its citizens? Third, how should the country resolve the status of the 10 million or so undocumented immigrants already within its borders?

Undoubtedly, the U.S. needs to do more to help genuine asylum-seekers. International law requires it, and so do the values to which the country was dedicated. In 2017, the U.S. granted asylum to about 26,000 applicants. Moving forward, that number should double. Reaching that goal is not a matter of making standards more lenient, but clearing a backlog of several hundred thousand cases pending before U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services and the immigration courts. It will mean adding many more judges, clerks and asylum officers at the border.

The rules need fixing too: Layers of ill-adapted laws, administrative tweaks and court rulings have created incentives for filing asylum claims that lack merit, paralyzing the system and pushing the most desperate to the back of the line. Addressing all this will be costly. Congress just passed a bill appropriating $4.5 billion to deal with the border surge, mostly for care and shelter. The 30 new immigration judge teams the bill covers (at a cost of $45 million) won't dent the asylum backlog. To speed legitimate asylum claims, get rid of bad ones and keep up with future trends, the U.S. should hire 10 times that number.

As for refugees, the U.S. should set the annual ceiling at 120,000. With the number of refugees worldwide remaining at a historic high, that figure - slightly higher than the Obama administration's 2017 ceiling of 110,000 - would be commensurate with the country's historical commitment to a compelling humanitarian purpose. Trump has lowered the ceiling for those admitted annually by nearly three-quarters, to 30,000 - and in 2018, the country let in just 22,491. In 1980, a much smaller U.S. economy admitted 207,116. To match that level with today's larger population, the U.S. would have to admit some 300,000 refugees.


The fact is, the U.S. can be doing far more than it is now, and should work with other governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to this end. After all, the program more than pays for itself: By one government estimate, from 2005 to 2014, refugees contributed $63 billion more in revenue than they cost in expenditures.

Shifting toward a system that pays greater attention to skills and to the needs of the labor market would raise the nation's return on immigration and make larger numbers of entrants of all kinds more politically feasible. In 2017, the U.S. issued 1,127,167 immigrant visas, but only about 7% went to workers themselves, not including their dependents. Moving forward, it should grant at least 1.4 million each year in total, and make half of these skills-based, changing that percentage as economic conditions demand. The points-based system used by Canada offers a good model.

A crucial element of this approach, though, is better enforcement of the law in the future, so that the issue doesn't resurface as an intractable problem. Strengthening the border will require investment in roads and barriers in urban areas, better lighting and sensing technology, and new equipment for screening at ports of entry. A biometric entry-exit system could track the visa overstayers who've outnumbered illegal border-crossers in recent years. And expanding the E-Verify system for vetting newly hired workers will be essential: Currently, only about 800,000 businesses are enrolled, or less than a third of the 3 million or so U.S. businesses with 10 or more employees.

Trump is just plain wrong on immigration. He sees a vital economic asset as a liability. But most of the Democrats running to unseat him are choosing not to grapple honestly with the issue - that is, with the need to secure the border, uphold the law, and limit humanitarian commitments to what is both affordable and politically feasible. Public recognition of the benefits of immigration has risen lately, but so has the polarization that makes workable remedies impossible. Enough. Posturing will no longer do. Immigration poses hard questions - and demands straight answers.

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