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As bipartisan leaders formulate proposals for modernizing the U.S. immigration system, they should include initiatives to reduce the pressure of migration by promoting a more prosperous and secure future for our neighbors and ourselves. For example, investments to bolster private-sector growth in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America will help generate jobs in communities that are the source of illegal immigrants to the U.S. And we can do much more in the battle against the illegal drug cartels that terrorize our citizens and our neighbors. Practical ideas to improve our shared prosperity and security demonstrate our sensitivity and our good sense.
Last week, a bipartisan group of senators revealed a proposal to regain control over U.S. borders, register undocumented immigrants, accommodate seasonal workers and prioritize skilled and high-tech individuals, among other measures. The estimated 11 million people in this country illegally today could apply for probationary residency by submitting to a background check and paying fines and back taxes; during this probationary period, they could work but not receive federal benefits. Criminals would be subject to immediate deportation.
Only after the border is secure and visa overstays are brought under control would “probationary” residents be eligible to apply for “green cards” as “lawful permanent residents.” The plan includes more border patrol agents, better surveillance technology, effective employment verification tools and stiff penalties for companies that hire undocumented persons.
This practical, balanced plan appears to make sense. However, it remains to be seen how many Republicans will align themselves with this framework and whether President Obama and Democrats will acquiesce in such an incremental approach. Moreover, a truly “comprehensive” reform plan should include broader measures to work with our neighbors to address the root causes of illegal immigration: lack of economic opportunity and insecurity.
Although Latin American countries have made substantial progress in recent decades, 30 percent of the region’s 570 million people live below the poverty line. To generate good jobs to satisfy the demand of burgeoning populations, these economies must attract investment capital to fuel sustainable private-sector growth. Congress can help jumpstart such growth simply by giving the Treasury Department the mandate to work with our partners in the region to create robust private-capital markets that will fuel entrepreneurship, business expansion and innovation.
Congress also should bolster public-private financing to private enterprise by empowering the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to expand its lending directly to entrepreneurs rather than to governments. The IDB — which is capitalized by the United States and other contributors — might be persuaded to prioritize lending in countries and communities that are the source of unemployed and displaced workers who historically have abandoned their homes in search of work.
In addition to such multilateral funding, the United States should provide expertise to countries to create national “enterprise funds” capitalized by governments to provide equity and debt capital to private entrepreneurs — directly, quickly and on commercial terms. Modeled on the successful enterprise funds of the 1980s that sowed the seeds of private economies in post-Communist Eastern Europe, these funds should be managed by investment professionals and not smothered by bureaucracy.
A second challenge that can be addressed along with comprehensive immigration reform is transnational drug trafficking. These criminal syndicates exact a terrible price from communities in Mexico; small states in Central America are nearly helpless to confront these ruthless, well-funded and well-armed gangsters. Congress should provide much more funding for international anti-drug assistance. And, here at home, U.S. law enforcement and prosecutors should be given the resources they need to step up their offensive against this criminal network in the United States and beyond our shores.
Of course, Latin America and the Caribbean are natural U.S. trade partners. Anything we do to encourage stability and sustainable economic growth by nurturing the development of healthy private sectors in these countries redounds to the benefit of the U.S. exporters, consumers, workers and investors who call the Americas home. These countries also are close to U.S. shores. By bolstering their security, we help our own.
Securing our border and controlling immigration are essential duties of the federal government. But we can augment that defensive strategy with proactive programs to fight crime that preys on immigrant communities, encourage prosperity in countries with which we share a future, and carry our weight in the fight against the transnational organized crime that destabilizes our hemisphere. Such a comprehensive approach not only is sound policy, it is good politics.
Noriega, a visiting scholar at AEI, was assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and ambassador to the Organization of American States in the administration of former President George W. Bush.
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