The humanitarian crisis at our southern border should never have happened, but it did, and we must understand why. It’s one of the chief reasons other nations no longer see America as the moral and political leader it once was. Indeed, it’s a major reason that we Americans feel less proud and confident about our nation and society.
It’s past time to fix our border problem. It can happen only through courageous congressional action and that elusive but essential quality, “presidential leadership.”
The way to start is by returning to regular legislative order. This is a proven process that in the not-too-distant past resulted in major legislation to solve big problems. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) promised this change when she re-assumed her post in January, and I believe she is ready to deliver the leadership our country so badly needs.
The first step is to have House and Senate committees and subcommittees of jurisdiction hold speedy, educational, and relevant hearings. Leadership should assemble a base bill on Comprehensive Immigration Reform, and there’s a good starting point: the 2013 bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill. It would have: provided a pathway to legal residence, and possible citizenship, for many undocumented immigrants; added 40,000 border patrol agents to improve security; and made it easier for foreigners with special, in-demand skills to enter and work in the country.
That bill was hotly debated, but it passed the Senate 68-32. That was a mere six years ago. The House smothered the measure, but the Senate’s action stands as proof that elected officials can, when they really want to, make tough decisions to help our country resolve its dilemmas.
Today’s House leaders can craft an updated immigration reform proposal. Then the proper subcommittees and full committees should do their jobs: Hold substantive hearings and testimony, allow vigorous debate, and take recorded votes.
When the bill reaches the House and Senate floors, it again should receive truly open debate (a dismally rare commodity in recent congresses, especially in the House).
Some may consider “regular order” a nostalgic dream from a musty past. Actually, it’s an honorable and workable system that should be revived. After all, what followed it is nothing to be proud of, and congressional approval ratings are abominably low. In terms of Congress, the past keeps looking better and better.
All of this can and must be done in days, not weeks. Everyone knows the issues. It’s courage that’s needed. Members of Congress just don’t want to vote on tough political issues, but the time has come.
Immigration has always been the soul of America, and it still is. Our immigration dysfunction is threatening the Constitutional political system that has made America the envy of the free world.
This won’t be easy, and we needn’t be naïve. Well-meaning people hold strong and varying views on immigration. No committee or floor votes will be unanimous. But the final results must have sizeable majorities – like the 2013 Senate vote – or the effort will remain bitterly contentious as the 2020 elections approach.
As part of this immigration bill, we must:
- Secure and police our borders, using all modern technology. This will include some walls and/or fences.
- Determine how those who have entered our country illegally can become legal under our laws. We must not shy from fining or deporting those who violate guidelines or commit crimes.
- Determine which and how many foreigners can legally enter the country each year.
- Develop a stronger international component by working with Canada and Mexico.
Some crucial groups are well-positioned to advance this type of courageous and responsible legislation. They include the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, the Democratic moderate “Blue Dogs,” and the House Agriculture Committee, chaired by the able Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
We voters have allowed our elected officials to dodge tough issues and then turn them into campaign attack ads. As a people, we must give our lawmakers enough room to compromise and collaborate – and then demand they do it. That’s the only way our system of checks and balances can possibly work.
Stenholm served in Congress from 1979-2005. He is a co-founder of No Labels.