As we endure another shutdown over immigration, let’s find a new path forward

Photo by REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez.

As we endure another government shutdown, we confront once again the wreckage of our national debate over immigration. All the complexity, nuance, and great American traditions and values bound up in this issue have withered into a debate over a “border wall.” All the while, tens of thousands of migrant children are spending the holidays in detention centers and care facilities separated from their families. And just yesterday, on Christmas day, another child died in custody. It is shameful.

As Washington continues to bicker, millions of Dreamers will remain uncertain of their future in America, the only country they’ve known. Farmers and small business owners in Colorado will struggle to find the seasonal labor they need. Foreign-born students graduating at the top of their class will pack their bags because they can’t get visas to stay.

They are all faces of an immigration debate that has become untethered from our traditions as a country. Throughout our history, generations of Americans have managed to forge a consensus by balancing our heritage as a nation of immigrants with our steadfast commitment to the rule of law. We fell short at times, but we always found our way back. That consensus — our shared American values — is why we have the most dynamic economy in the word. It is why we have the most vibrant culture in the world. And it is why America is a beacon to the persecuted and oppressed.

Instead of tending to that honorable legacy, President Trump has used immigration as political napalm to divide and to demonize. And his policies — from canceling DACA to tearing migrant children from their parents — will exist beside some of the most shameful chapters in our history.

Now, all of us have to decide what chapter comes next. So as we look to a new year, let’s imagine an entirely new dialogue around immigration: one where we honor human dignity and stay true to our values as a country; where our differences are not artillery for endless partisanship, but invitations to solve difficult problems; where we reward solutions, not slogans; and where we insist on goals, but allow for flexibility to reach them.

Five years ago, we embraced that approach to assemble a bill for comprehensive immigration reform. The work among the Gang of Eight was unglamorous — long meetings, imperfect options, contentious amendments — but the results spoke for themselves. Our bill secured the border, modernized our visa and asylum laws, and created a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. And, it passed the Senate with 68 votes. Sadly, it died in the House after the Freedom Caucus refused to bring it to a vote — the same people who urged the President to close our government over a wall.

Despite the partisan noise in Washington over the past year, Americans across our country — from faith leaders to business owners, from farmers to parents — are coming together to talk about our shared values and restoring a consensus on immigration that reflects the kind of country we want to be.

Washington should follow their lead. We should find a way to clear the visa backlog so families can reunite and businesses can grow. We should reform the asylum process to clear applicants more efficiently. We should secure our border by investing in technology, fencing, and more agents. And we should create a path for millions of people to come out of the shadows and fully join the communities in which they’ve lived and contributed for years.

During our work on comprehensive immigration reform, another Gang of Eight member would often say, “America is an idea.” I agree, and would take the thought further. The idea of America is not fixed in stone; it changes over time. For generations, Americans have worked to make that idea more generous, more welcoming, and more consistent with our highest ideals. Now, the work falls to us.