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How do you fix a broken immigration system? Part 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 2, 2010 - "It's broken."

Despite differing viewpoints, nearly everyone the Beacon spoke with about our immigration system had that same answer. Their thoughts on reform differ in many ways, but agreements did crop up and often included the need to simplify the bureaucracy, to control our borders better and to impose some penalties on people who came here illegally or who are now here undocumented, without necessarily sending them home.

Interviews were edited for clarity and length.

John Ammann

A clinical professor of law at Saint Louis University Law School, Ammann works as the director of SLU Legal Clinics, which works with low-income people, non-profits and government agencies and law students for practical experience. In 2008, Ammann was nominated as "2008 Lawyer of the Year" by Missouri Lawyer's Weekly for his work with 80 Bosnians whose citizenship applications were delayed.

What do you think of our current immigration system? How well does it work?

Ammann: Clearly there needs to be reform of the system. A more common-sense approach to border control is one issue, but also dealing with the huge, long waits for people who are applying to come to the country. Depending on what country you come from, there are waits of 10, 20, 30 years to bring relatives over. The system currently splits up families and takes too long on the legal immigration side.

The crackdowns on what people are calling illegal immigration are really misguided. Missouri's got a law that's kind of harsh and Missouri doesn't have a problem. There aren't any studies to show that undocumented aliens in Missouri are stealing jobs or are a drain on the economy. Nobody's ever produced a study to show that.

To answer your question generally, there needs to be common-sense border control. We need a more efficient system for people that apply for citizenship and asylum and refugee status and all the different ways you can come into the country. And then ultimately we need to do something about the people who are here undocumented.

Clearly we need to do something about where some members of a family have documentation and are here legally and others aren't. The people who say, 'well, if they're here illegally, we should just send them home,' the person who's here illegally might be the mother of three kids and the three kids might be U.S. citizens. So are you gonna send the mom home and put the three kids in foster care? It doesn't make any sense. The people who think it's a black and white issue, the people who say things like 'what part of illegal don't you understand?' they're the ones who don't understand because it can't be a zero tolerance system.

You mentioned a couple of failings of the system. What would a more common-sense approach to border control look like?

Ammann: I'm not an expert on border control ... I don't know that the fence is the answer. A logical system ironically might be more porous we have now ... a lot of people have advocated to let migrant workers, let day workers, let the guy who lives in Mexico but picks grapes in Texas cross the border three months out of the year when he's working and go back home on the weekends. What's the problem with that? Have a system where there's logical and legal flow of citizens between the two countries, for work, for tourism, for whatever. Is a wall the answer? I don't think so. There's a lot of logical things we could do that would promote the economies of both countries without having to build a wall at all.

What would it take to make the kinds of changes you've talked about a reality?

Ammann: Some common sense in Congress. Half an ounce of compassion would be nice. I want to listen to the people who are providing some compassion and who understand the rule of law but also have some compassion for people's situations.

If we had more porous borders and more respect for families and all the things you talked about, what do you think those kind of reforms would mean to the country?

Ammann: There's a great potential for economic development that uses the resources of both countries and Central America as a whole. There's a great synergy that we could develop, and NAFTA took a step in that direction, merging the economies of North American countries.

I think we would win economically if we got rid of some of the psychological barriers and physical barriers between the countries. Part of the problem is it points up the racial profiling side of this. You know we're not talking about Canadians here. We're not having this discussion because people are upset that Canadians are coming to the country illegally or overstaying their student visas. We're having this discussion because of people with brown skin, and that's what people get upset about. That's what bothers me the most -- the racial aspect of this.

What are your thoughts on the Arizona immigration law? Where will it lead and is the rest of the country headed that way?

Ammann: I oppose the Arizona law and believe the judge's decision this week was correct. Among other things, she found it would be a huge problem for people here legally but who would be targeted because of their skin color. The judge also found the law gave too much discretion to the police, which is a huge problem. Many other states are adopting these type of laws, with no studies or other basis to show that the presence of immigrants is a problem.

Jalesia McQueen Gadberry

McQueen Gadberry grew up in a bilingual household that moved around the country and the world with the Air Force. Her father was born in the United States, her mother in Peru. Now, as a lawyer in her own firm, McQueen Gadberry deals with immigration with employers wanting to sponsor employees. Like her own upbringing, she speaks Spanish to her twin boys at home.

What are your views on the current immigration system?

McQueen Gadberry: Being an attorney and working in the system every day, I can say since I started about seven years ago, it's gotten just so much worse. It's gotten more bureaucratic.

This huge bureaucratic system really leaves people out; and it takes years and years and years to get through the system. I'd say the average is between two to seven years to get through the immigration system, and sometimes longer, and this is going through legally.

I have problem that we're so focused on the illegal immigrants that no one's talking about the legal immigrants. It's frustrating for me, for someone who works with legal immigrants who have skills and degrees and are contributing to our economic system already. It's more focused on the illegals that come over the border.

What are your thoughts on the Arizona immigration law? Where will it lead, and is the rest of the country headed that way?

McQueen Gadberry: I do not believe that the Arizona law violates any federal law. In fact, it states clearly that federal law rules and the state law refers to the provisions of the federal law that require the federal government to investigate potential illegal immigration.

However, I do not believe the law will be effective because it is basing its success on the federal system, which is broken. I am not against the law because of any race or anti-immigration argument. There is a provision in the Arizona law that creates a fund for county jails to be reimbursed for detaining alleged illegal aliens. County jails can only detain individuals for a specific amount of time. So, it is likely that some of these individuals will be released, since Immigration and Customs Enforcement is strapped putting away illegal aliens who commit heinous crimes and may not have the time to deal with illegal aliens that are working in the cornfields.

I am certainly against the Department of Justice suing Arizona. Suing Arizona is a smokescreen to divert the attention of the public away from true immigration reform and towards a more derisive battle that will polarize us further. It is a shame.

What changes would you make to reform the system?

McQueen Gadberry: There are a lot of unnecessary steps in the immigration process. Most people don't know this, but prior to 1913 we had practically free immigration into this country.

We should be less focused on the administration of the system and more focused on the security aspect of immigration. The people that came here to bomb the Twin Towers actually were on visas; they were on student visas. Our allocation of resources would be a lot better if we focus on security, getting the background checks done of people, and allowing people to come here to work if that's what they want to do, and allowing people to stay, ultimately, if that's what they want to do.

You mentioned that we focus too much on people here illegally. What would you like to see done with people without documentation?

McQueen Gadberry: There are two subsets that I can see. The first is the people here for economic reasons, wanting to feed their families. Then you have the second subset of people here to cause problems. These are the drug smugglers, the human traffickers, real hardened criminals. What's happened is that those two subsets are lumped into one huge set.

The problem is you have resources allocated to getting rid of the criminals and getting rid of illegal immigration, but you can't really distinguish one from the other, so you're not thinning the haystack. You're trying to go after everybody at the same time.

You have to be practical. Trying to go after everybody for everything is not practical. We need to get accountability of people. We need to make the system easier so that people, if they have a job here, then we can account for them, not make them citizens, not give them a road to anything because there has to be some kind of accountability for what they've done.

What are the obstacles to streamlining the process of either monitoring who's coming in or helping people get through the paperwork?

McQueen Gadberry: Bureaucracy begets bureaucracy. It's a very, very complicated system. A lot of people have a lot invested in it being complicated, including attorneys, politicians, any other special interest groups. The biggest obstacle is to try and convince people that you need to go just scratch it and start over again because basically that's what you have to do.

If the reforms that you're talking about were made, what impact would that have on our country?

McQueen Gadberry: This protectionist attitude about immigration really needs to change. This still is a melting pot and I think if we would allow the free market to work, we would all be a lot better off financially, better off freedom wise, politically and religiously.

Neal Breitweiser

Breitweiser is the Creve Coeur Township Republican committeeman. In addition to that role, Breitweiser also serves as an officer on the 24th senatorial district and is in sales with Vitran, a Canadian trucking company.

What are your views on our current immigration system and how well does it work?

Breitweiser: I believe that we should just enforce the laws that are on the books. If we did that, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation. I think there are existing laws that need to be financed. If financing's a problem then we need to finance them. We should just enforce the existing laws. They worked for a long time like they were. The federal government has fallen short in particular in the border in the south. It's not enforcing the border.

What laws do you think specifically aren't being enforced well enough?

Breitweiser: It's pretty simple. People who want to come to this country should apply through the normal naturalization process. Every fourth of July and throughout the year, hundreds of (people from other countries) are sworn in right here in St. Louis. That system works. People I've talked to don't appreciate people barging across the border, taking jobs and opportunities away from those who have waited several years to migrate to this country legally. It's a drag on our system. It's a drag on our welfare system, our Medicare system. If we enforce the laws we have, people could migrate to this country naturally and we wouldn't have all these problems that we're having today.

Are there any additional reforms you'd like to see made to our immigration system?

Breitweiser: There's usually a bias toward countries that we want legal immigration from. One reform would be that they could increase the (preference), if they still exist, to the south of us. Latin Americans should be given a priority. Obviously the demand is there, so why not take advantage of that? These are, for the most part, very industrious, religious, good people. They're not criminals, they're good hard-working people and when they come to this country they're good Americans. There's no reason we shouldn't allow more hard-working good people into our country. That's one of the problems --they don't allow enough a year. I think if they raised that, they'd relieve the borders.

For the people who are crossing the border illegally and are here now, what should be done?

Breitweiser: That's a tough one. I supported President George W. Bush's amnesty program, and I supported Ronald Reagan's amnesty program. Neither was popular at the time they were proposed. Reagan's went through, and Bush's didn't, but I supported it. It's uncomfortable, it's not the most desirable scenario, but it's something I believe would have worked.

What are your thoughts on the Arizona law and is this the direction the rest of the country is headed state by state?

Breitweiser: I support the decision of Arizona's governor to do what she did. They were pigeonholed, they had to do something. It might not have been the best law in the world. I think that parts of it could be rewritten. But for the time being, they feel that that's the best way to deal with the issue that's in their state. I believe they're within their rights to do that. The federal government won't help them.  

Kristen Hare