What Do Americans Really Want From Immigration Reform?

How about some good news: the American landscape isn’t a political battlefield if we simply stop to ask citizens what they believe is best for America. This applies even to the current immigration debate, which has actually moved away from disagreement and towards a national consensus.

The Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute recently published their comprehensive study, “Citizenship, Values, & Cultural Concerns: What Americans Want From Immigration Reform”.  The majority of all Americans (63%) agree “immigrants currently in the country illegally should be allowed to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements”. Majorities of both Democrats (71%) and Republicans (53%) support this statement. Clearly now is the time for Congress to act on this issue, as they need not fear losing the support of their constituents regardless of their party; what an amazing bipartisan step immigration reform could be.

According to the study, Americans care about immigration for many reasons. Five values that people think are extremely important to guide America’s immigration policy include promoting national security (84%), keeping families together (84%), protecting the dignity of every person (82%), ensuring fairness to taxpayers (77%), and enforcing the rule of law (77%). Also 69 percent of Americans agree that “providing immigrants the same opportunity that I would want if my family were immigrating to the U.S.” is a very or extremely important value, the study found.

This current train of thought highlights that immigrating families and individuals are simply families and individuals like everyone else. What is good for current citizens should be good for recently immigrating citizens as well: security, family, dignity, fairness to taxpayers, rule of law. Providing these qualities of life to recent immigrants is also pursuing justice.

Here we have to distinguish justice from law. We must uphold current laws certainly; we must advocate for change where it’s necessary. Laws are human attempts to shape life into what it should be, creating guidelines and incentives that direct a society. We don’t always craft laws perfectly so we must not shy away from changing them when laws do not currently serve all people justly.

Therefore creating a more just reality for all people in the United States doesn’t require relying on current laws, those that breaks families apart and denies people already here the ability to participate fully in citizenship. Don’t we want each friend, neighbor, and family member to engage and contribute his or her fullest potential to society? It seems that yes, most Americans agree with this concept, and we therefore must start to act.

One motivation for this change, it seems, is the makeup of generations. Of the Millenials (age 18-29) 68 percent have close friends born outside the US, whereas only 48 percent of seniors (age 65 and over) report this. When I talk of classmates and friends, it’s obvious they deserve the dignity that I also hope for in life. Living in community with others is the best way to become not “us” and “them”, but rather “we”.

Turning values important for guiding immigration policy, like “protecting the dignity of every person”, and “increasing national security” into concrete policy is the next step. Life is multidimensional, so addressing multiple values at once increases their application to reality. We must be just, and merciful; we can pursue a rule of law, and increase community.

National security includes increased border security, and this can benefit everyone. Increasing the ability to immigrate legally will decrease the prevalence of dangerous border crossings, or the sending of only children, who are often left homeless and helpless in a new place. Families are a unit we want to uphold, so we should allow for families to gain citizenship as a unit. Arriving legally solidifies each person’s dignity and says, yes, you have a space here too. Lastly, knowing exactly who lives in America is an innovation as necessary for new immigrants as much as for those already citizens. It’s possible to improve the life of current citizens and future citizens through upholding these values in immigration reform.

The actual application of such policies to American life will take time, but it’s necessary we start down this path. A majority of Americans, across party lines, agree that it’s time we welcome those already here to become citizens and also secure our borders for everyone’s safety. We are in consensus about what is right and fair, so it is high time we pursue justice, uphold these values, and improve America’s immigration policies in a way that values each person and seeks to benefit all Americans.

-Lauren Walker is a senior at Calvin College, graduating this spring with a major in psychology and minors in international development and spanish. She currently interns at the Center for Public Justice assisting their education policy reform project, which explores how Christians can better invest in public education.