The evidence is overwhelming that immigrants – regardless of legal status – play a vital role in America's economic, social, and cultural prosperity. Illegal immigration is not a discrete problem, nor can it be solved through mass deportation or laws that drive people out of a state, because questions of legal and illegal immigration are directly linked.
Despite growing demand for the skills of immigrants in every economic sector, the US legal immigration system relies on quotas set in 1990 that fail to serve America today. Rigid, inflexible laws can't reflect the dynamic economic and social needs of the country.
Desperation, fueled by the universal desire to make a better life, drives some to go around the system. We can focus on punishing those choices or we can focus on reforming the system to reflect reality. Increasing our current legal immigration limits and expanding opportunities for living and working in the United States lawfully would dramatically reduce future illegal immigration.
And what of the roughly 11 million people who lack legal status today? Many have lived here for more than a decade, work, pay taxes, and have children who are US citizens. Some argue that these factors are dwarfed by the initial act of breaking the law, but if we are serious about ending illegal immigration, then we can't look solely at the past.
Legislation that strikes a balance between atoning for the past and creating certainty for the future (paying a fine and other requirements as conditions for obtaining permanent legal status) would maximize the benefits the US receives from people already making contributions. The end result would be an economic boost for everyone, greater productivity, and targeted enforcement against genuine threats to US security.
If we want to devastate our economy and our communities, we can resort to mass deportations or to Arizona-style laws, but those don't ensure our country's prosperity. We can punish or we can prosper, but it is increasingly evident that we cannot do both.
Mary Giovagnoli is director of the Immigration Policy Center.