Is There a Solution to the Immigration Crisis?

A U.S. border patrol agent in Nogalex, Arizona
A U.S. border patrol agent in Nogalex, Arizona

Dr. Jim Griesemer paid close attention to President Obama's recent speech on immigration reform. A professor at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business, he recently led a panel of distinguished Coloradans -- businessmen, academics, former politicians, law enforcement and others -- through a year-long investigation of immigration.

Dr. Griesemer is also director of the university's Strategic Issues Program. About every 18 months, that program takes on a major societal issue and puts it under a microscope -- in the hopes of coming up with new answers to long-standing challenges.

25 Recommendations to Fix Immigration

"We put together a non-partisan panel," he says, of "thoughtful, accomplished citizens, about 20 people from around the state. And then ... we bring in a wide variety of experts and advocates, researchers, public officials on whatever particular issue." While examining immigration, Dr. Griesemer says the panel listened to 30 presentations between January and May of last year. They spent the next several months discussing the issue, as part of consensus-based process.

The panel's results were published this past December. It came up with 25 recommendations to fix America's immigration policies -- ideas as broad as establishing priorities for the goals of immigration ("national security, social vitality, economic advantage, family unification and refugee relief, in that order") and as specific as federally funded English language training classes, along with the requirement that all U.S. citizens and permanent residents demonstrate "a level of proficiency in the English language as defined by Congress."

The panel also recommended that U.S. employers "be recognized as key allies in implementing immigration policy and that they be given the tools and protections necessary to support immigration policy." It also called for restructuring the visa system into eight broad categories, as well as the creation of a convertible visa category "for immigrants with superior education, experience, skills and talent that would allow individuals to change employers and, if eligible, adjust to permanent resident status."

What Are We Trying to Accomplish?

"At the most fundamental level," says Dr. Griesemer, "we need to decide what we're trying to achieve with an immigration policy. The second thing, in terms of immediacy: There's no question that the federal government has plenary power, they have the ultimate authority over this issue. Their failure to enact a comprehensive, effective policy is what, in my judgment, has led states like Arizona to, in effect, take matters into their own hands."

But Dr. Griesemer says multiple, locally run immigration laws would be financially disastrous. "We had a number of representatives of business [and] labor talk to the panel and everyone said the same thing," he remembers.

"What we can't allow to happen is to have every state have its own laws. How can a business operate from state-to-state when the laws are all different? How can unions operate? One of the first things that needs to happen is that the federal government needs to step forward. Our report recommended that they carve out the domain in which they want to act, and then say to the states, 'you can act in these areas' -- but that the feds come in and actually develop a policy and take responsibility which, by and large, they've not done."

Conflicting Claims on Costs of Immigration

Dr. Griesemer said the panel was presented with conflicting information regarding some major immigration issues, including whether illegal immigrants cost U.S. communities more than they provide. "There was no definite answer to that," he says. "We did not conclude there was a clear answer if these folks were costing state and cities. I think you can make an argument that there's an imbalance between revenue, which tends to be going to the federal government, and costs -- which tend to be state and local."

The professor believes President Obama is also trying to establish a national consensus on immigration at a time of intense political polarization. And that polarization, he says, is misleading the public.

"The argument has tended to be cast, by whatever side, in very simplistic terms," he says, "and it has tended to focus on a single issue. As our report points out, we talk about immigration in the singular, but it exists in the plural. It isn't an issue, it's a group of issues -- and solving it is more like fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. [Obama] tried to present it as the sort of multiple-issue question that it is, not just as a simple question. And I think the public ... understands this isn't simply a black-and-white issue that can be solved with a magic stroke."

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