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OP-ED: Reform Legal Immigration So ‘Options Like Our Asylum System Do Not Become Backdoor Methods’

In early February, 45 young and talented individuals stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the U.S. Capitol. They were joined by leaders of a diverse coalition of pastors, community leaders, members of Congress and representatives from FWD.us, UnidosUS, the National Immigration Forum and other organizations.

These individuals are Dreamers — brought to America as children and eager to be part of contributing to America’s future. Their goal: to show people that even amid the polarization that characterizes immigration debates today, there is a growing population that seeks to find common ground.

That type of broad coalition can be the foundation to addressing even greater challenges, like the one now unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border, where people seeking asylum have overwhelmed our country’s immigration system.

With the sudden resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen over the weekend, the situation has become even more uncertain.

As with many debates today, it’s natural to focus on the polarized extremes. But the solutions lie elsewhere.

My organization was among the many that supported and were encouraged by the president’s statement during his State of the Union address that, “I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”

History makes one thing clear: Immigration is good. One of the objectives of our immigration system is to ensure that those who will contribute to the United States are welcome and have a clear path to do so in a way that benefits both them and our country. This is critical to ensuring that America remains the place they want to come.

To that end, proposals to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border — offered in response to the increasing number of migrants seeking asylum in the United States — are not a solution, and it’s well that the president quickly backed away from that threat.

But a one-year delay in taking action and the specter of new tariffs would not pause the situation at the border. To ensure that progress has been made by the next time this crisis hits the news cycle, we must begin the hard work of presenting, debating and adopting solutions that will relieve pressure at the border and get at the root of the problem.

For centuries, our country has been a beacon of hope for people facing such despair, and whose only desire is to make a better life. Today, many of the migrants are families and children fleeing the dire situations in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in search of opportunity. But Border Patrol facilities were not designed to deal with the dynamics of holding and processing large numbers of families and the problem is straining Customs and Border Protection capacity.

Despite these conditions, the truth is enforcing our laws and effectively administering our nation’s immigration policy should not require the United States to step back from its longstanding commitment to accept and review asylum applications.

If we truly want to address the situation, then let’s drive solutions that reduce the pressure at the border.

If the problem is an increase in numbers at the border, then allow migrants the option to apply for asylum not just at the border, but in their home countries as well.

If the problem is overcrowded detention facilities, then utilize alternatives and detain only those asylum seekers who might pose a threat to society.

If the problem is an inability of immigration judges to clear the backlog of cases, then increase the number of judges to ensure timely and proper consideration of claims.

If the problem is that many are truly seeking economic opportunity rather than asylum, then increase the number of work visas we issue to allow these migrants to fill roles and contribute to our communities.

Fundamentally, however, let’s also commit to figuring out a way to work together and reform our immigration system. We need to modernize and streamline legal immigration channels so that options like our asylum system do not become backdoor methods of legal immigration, straining the system beyond what it was designed to do.

This challenge was decades in the making, and it is going to take a sustained effort to meet it.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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