A conservative framework
We have a legal immigration system that doesn't work. We don't have an effective system to enforce our immigration laws. And we have, by some estimates, as many as 11 million human beings living in the United States without the proper immigration documents in a state of de facto amnesty. It's a problem that has both political and economic ramifications on our nation.
On the political front, a growing number of voters of Asian and Hispanic descent have been convinced by the left that conservative opposition to immigration reform equates to being anti-immigrant. This is unfair and it is untrue. But they have pulled it off and, as a result, our ability to convince these fast-growing communities that the principles of limited government and free enterprise are better for them than big government and collectivism has been impaired.
The economic ramifications, however, are even more serious. For example, our technology sector creates roughly 120,000 computer engineering jobs a year but our universities graduate only about 40,000 students a year in that field. The long-term answer, of course, is to get more American students to graduate in this field. But the immediate problem is that, in the absence of an immigration system where these workers can be brought here, these jobs are sent overseas to them.
Another example is in agriculture, where a stable and affordable domestic supply of food is critical to our national security and our quality of life. Agriculture has always required a significant workforce from abroad. But we do not have a system through which growers and dairies can bring a workforce legally into the United States.
This broken system of immigration, combined with lax enforcement, has resulted in our illegal immigration problem.
In an ideal world, we could go back to 1986 and rewrite the immigration reform efforts implemented then to account for these issues and to ensure that real enforcement measures would be implemented. But in the real world, we cannot do that. We have to deal with what we have in the best way possible and make sure that this never ever happens again.
The principles I have proposed to deal with this issue are not perfect. But I believe they create a framework for dealing with this reality in a responsible and reasonable way. And I think conservatives have already won important concessions from Democrats that we can build on to shape the actual legislation.
First, we would modernize our legal immigration system. In essence, we create one that meets the needs this country has in this new century.
For example, while I support our family-based system of immigration, we can no longer afford to have less than 10 percent of our immigration based on skill and talent. We need a functional guest-worker program so that, in times of low unemployment and rapid economic growth, our industries have the labor they need to continue growing. And we need an agricultural worker program that allows our growers to contract the seasonal and year-round labor they need legally.
Second, we need real enforcement mechanisms. An employment verification system is the key to this. We have the technology to implement such a system, so we just need to do it. Over 40 percent of our illegal immigrants entered legally and overstayed their visas. That's why we need to have a complete system of tracking the entry and exit of visitors, using the technologies available to us today.
And we need to achieve control of our borders. This is not just an immigration issue; this is a national security and sovereignty issue. And it can be done. The southern border is actually divided into nine separate sectors. There has been progress made in some sectors and not enough in others. We need to establish the high probability of intercepting illegal crossings in each of these sectors in a timely and effective manner.
And third, we have to deal with those who are here now without documents. I am not happy about the fact that we face this problem. But we do. Most of these are people who will be here for the rest of their lives with or without documents, so it is in our best interest to deal with them and to make sure this never happens again.
This is how I have proposed we do so. First, those who have violated our immigration laws must come forward and undergo a background check. If they have committed a serious crime, they will be deported. If they have not, they will have two choices: They can avail themselves of the current law, which requires them to return to their native countries, wait 10 years and then apply for green cards. Or if they decide to remain in the United States, they will do so under the equivalent of nonimmigrant work permits by paying substantial fines and back taxes. If they choose the nonimmigrant work visas, they will not qualify for any federal benefits, including ObamaCare.
Those who choose the nonimmigrant work permits will not be allowed to apply for green cards for a substantial period of time. And they will not be allowed to apply until the enforcement mechanisms outlined above are in place. Thereafter, once these conditions are met — and if they have not violated any laws while holding the work permits — the only thing they will be allowed to do is apply for green cards using the same process everyone else uses. That is, they apply, they wait in line behind everyone who has applied before them and when their turn comes up, they have to qualify for one of the existing green card programs.
If the president decides to support a plan to the left of this, he will do so in conflict with leaders of his own party — not to mention the majority of Americans — and ultimately bear the responsibility for derailing a bipartisan immigration plan.
Marco Rubio, a Republican, is a U.S. senator of Florida. This commentary is adapted from Mr. Rubio's longer response to criticism of his immigration reform plan by Erik Erickson at RedState.com.