The issues associated with immigration are complex and require more than just politically charged sound bites to solve.
Of course when we talk about immigration today we are almost exclusively referring to undocumented people of Mexican and to a lesser extent, South and Central American origin. The US Department of Homeland Security estimates there are about 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the living in this country. Some other sources put the number as high as 20 million, but the 11 to 12 million figure represents the consensus of the politically neutral sources. I use the term undocumented but the term illegal is also appropriate here. Whether or not you are for an open border or a wall manned by machine gun toting guards to stop all immigration doesn’t matter. When the law is not complied with, it is an illegal act regardless if we agree with the law or not. We spend as much or more time arguing about terminology as we do about trying to solve the problem which is of course exactly what politicians want. They don’t want to solve problems!
How did we get here? We have always had a large number of migrant workers in this country. When I was a child growing up in Lake County, the arrival of the migrant workers signaled the beginning of the orange harvest. They also harvested strawberries, tomatoes, and several other crops here in Central Florida before moving on to harvest other crops in Georgia, Texas, California Washington and several other states. It was a circuit that all of us knew well and accepted as being necessary and beneficial to all.
So what changed? There were two primary movers neither of which are discussed much if at all by either side of the political aisle. The first was Brown vs Board of Education in 1956 that declared segregation in schools unconstitutional and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended workplace discrimination based on race. While it is true, it took almost another decade for these two events particularly in the South to come to full effect the end result was that large numbers of African-Americans left the unskilled labor force and joined their white counterparts in the general job market. As a result, a vacuum was created in the unskilled labor market particularly in the agricultural and service sectors of the economy. This vacuum was filled by millions of unskilled laborers primarily from Mexico and economically depressed Central American countries. Additionally, as there was now plenty of work available year round in the same geographic area so many of these workers chose to stay rather than return to their native countries and reenter the US every year. Industry profited and the US Government under both Republican and Democratic administrations looked the other way by chronically under-funding the agencies responsible for immigration control and relegating deportation of these immigrants with no criminal record to the lowest priority.
When the Department of Homeland Security was created on November 25th 2002 as a response to the tragic events on 9/11 and a higher level of concern for border security, significantly more money and resources became available to US Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE). With this infusion of money and resources actions against primarily undocumented Mexican immigrants rose sharply during the Obama administration. The Obama administration, however, used these resources to locate and deport illegal immigrants involved in criminal activity either here or in their native countries and not those merely trying to escape economic hardships faced in their home countries.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump, out of ignorance and political fear mongering, has attempted to group terrorist and honest but impoverished Mexican and other Latin American immigrants who are in this country for the sole purpose of making a better life for them and their families as enemies of the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of proposing practical solutions he proposes a multi-billion dollar wall and efforts to deport the millions of undocumented workers currently taking jobs that would otherwise go unfilled dramatically increasing the cost of agricultural products, food in restaurants, hotels, lawn care and construction industries. But we also cannot ignore the stress undocumented immigrants place on public services in the communities where they reside in numbers. There must be relief for these communities.
The solution is a greatly expanded guest worker program. Partner with the Mexican government to build and staff guest worker processing at the legal immigration points on the border. If a background check is passed the guest worker will be issued a guest worker card with a tax number on the card. Employers will be responsible for taking appropriate taxes from wages. The large majority of the money collected from these taxes will be distributed to states and communities based on worker population to help defray the cost of providing public services with the rest used to fund the operation of the guest worker processing facilities.
Undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. will have the opportunity to obtain a guest worker card during a designated grace period. If they do not obtain a card they would be subject to deportation regardless if they have a criminal record or not. Employers that do not accurately report earnings or the presence of guest workers would be subject to fines or imprisonment for gross cases. If a guest worker desires to become a U.S. citizen they will be required to follow the same path as immigrants from any other country.