This post was originally published on, a leading immigration online law publisher, on July 3, 2012. 

What are we going to do about U.S. immigration policy? That question is back in the spotlight again after a whirlwind two weeks for the issue. First, the Obama Administration announced that it would end the deportations of undocumented young people who would be eligible for relief under the DREAM Act. Then, last week, the Supreme Court struck down three of four key elements of the controversial anti-immigrant law passed in 2010 by the state of Arizona.

Both of these developments are significant steps in the right direction – but they rightly beg the question: How do we really go about fixing the problem we have when it comes to U.S. immigration policy? What is needed is a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that is based in fairness, facts, and a shared future.

These three concepts aren’t just nice words – they mean something.

Immigration reform should be fair: We need to address the needs of the country while allowing for discretion toward the individual, and to strive for equity in spirit and execution.

Immigration reform should be based in facts: Overheated hyperbole, stereotypes, and uncorroborated statements won’t get us anywhere and only inject more division. We need to seek vetted, well-researched and relevant information that can move us toward an unbiased, balanced solution.

Immigration reform should promote our shared future: Decisions we make will have long-term consequences for individuals, families, communities, and who we are as a nation. We must seek solutions that embrace our identity as a nation with a long tradition of welcoming immigrants.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators has been engaged in the debate on comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) for many years, for three simple reasons:

  1. A comprehensive bill is the most likely vehicle for the provisions involving high-skilled immigration which most concern our members.
  2. The current dysfunctional immigration regime places limits on our ability to maintain a dynamic system of educational and scholarly exchange.
  3. Our immigration system is an important part of the face that the United States presents to the world. In short, if we are viewed as an unwelcoming, suspicious country, talented people will be less and less inclined to come here.

The bottom line is this: In an era of global mobility, how can the United States attract the best international students and scholars if our immigration system is stuck in the pre-global age and our immigration debate too often screams anti-foreign sentiment?

While there is no authoritative definition of CIR, it is useful to think of it as consisting of three primary pillars:

  1. Enforcement—sometimes divided into border security and interior enforcement.
  2. Visa reform broadly—including employment-based visas—based on levels of skill and agricultural employment, plus family-based immigration.
  3. The undocumented—resolution of the status of some 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.

Because of the politics surrounding the issue, Congress has been able to act on only one of these elements: enforcement. It has been willing to devote extraordinary resources to fortifying the southwest border and deporting illegal immigrants, with some success. But even leaving aside the question of whether the benefits produced by border security are worth the enormous costs, the effort is ultimately doomed unless we recognize the link between border security and visa reform, as well as the status of undocumented immigrants.

Indeed, the three pillars above are inextricably related. Tweaking one part generally affects other parts. And the various pieces of the system are of concern to different constituencies – making it difficult to impossible to put together a coalition to enact a policy to address one issue while ignoring the concerns of another constituency. At the end of the day, the political calculus is: If your issue gets resolved with my support, how am I to trust that you will be there when I need support to resolve my issue?

This is why the well-intended band-aids recently introduced in Congress will not fix the underlying problems. These kinds of bills are unlikely to pass – each one that is introduced attracts various constituencies that attach their particular issues, thus making the bill less coherent and viable. A proactive, comprehensive approach is needed that looks holistically at the interrelated issues and considers both present concerns and future needs the immigration system will need to accommodate.

Bringing about comprehensive immigration reform will require a sustained, collaborative effort – this isn’t going to be a quick fix. Complex problems require complex solutions. We must keep our eye on the ball and focus on what’s fair, what’s based in facts, and what sets us on a path toward a shared future.

Speaking of facts, NAFSA is releasing today a summary of common misconceptions that surround the immigration debate. By sharing resources and perspectives, we aim to help shed some light, rather than heat, on the subject. We’ve got enough heat to last us the rest of summer.