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My plan for immigration reform

We are, as the cliché goes, a nation of immigrants. We know this to be true, but we’ve somehow stopped thinking about what it means. None of us, other than Native Americans, have any birthright to U.S. soil and we are at our best when we recognize that the meaningful difference is when we came — not from where we came. Those who immigrated to the U.S. voluntarily all did so with the common idea that they would have more opportunity in the U.S. than they had at home. Many of those who came here in bondage would later lead the Great Migration northward, driven by the same impulse. This American willingness to uproot and resettle in a foreign land gave us a legacy of risk-takers, adventurers, and hard workers. It is what continues to make America great.

Yet we now find ourselves in a country where too many of our leaders focus on the poverty of the countries immigrants are coming from rather than the strength of character that inspired them to leave.

Of course, we need to protect our borders — and vet those who wish to come to our country. That is not in dispute. More people want to immigrate to the United States than we can accommodate. But that is a blessing, not a burden.

For too long, we have written immigration policy at the corners, rarely with a holistic view of our national goals or interests. Immigration is too often an afterthought to other initiatives.  International narcotics policy, the “war on terror,” and economic policy are set nationally, but also tamper with the effectiveness of local law enforcement, from community policing programs to coordination with cross-border colleagues. We cannot ignore the fact that our historic immigration policy has been used by demagogues to scapegoat foreigners rather than address fundamental challenges in the economy; it’s always easier to blame others than to honestly confront structural changes in the U.S. economy, but that doesn’t make it right.

Nationally, we know these things to be true, and we know we need comprehensive immigration reform to address them. As recently as 2013, the “Gang of Eight” came close to achieving a fix for many of these issues. Unfortunately, partisan politics prevented the effort from moving forward, leaving us with only temporary patches made to DACA under President Obama. A positive step, to be sure, but far from comprehensive.

In 2011, I helped publish a white paper for the Chicago Council of Global Affairs with fellow Emerging Leaders to review comprehensive immigration reform and its impact on the Chicago area. That report can be found here. In addition, I serve on the Thayer School of Engineering Corporate Collaboration Council, which helps engineering graduate students secure internships and long-term employment — many of them are foreigners in the U.S. on education or H1B visas. In 2001, our family set up a five-year exchange program to support 5×1 year exchange programs with a high school in East Java, Indonesia after 9/11 to facilitate cross-cultural communication. Going back to my early days, when I was a toddler in 1972 in Columbus, Indiana, my parents worked with local churches to create a resettlement program for Vietnamese refugees. It changed the character of that town and — as it spread across America — helped change our national attitudes for the better. Ironically, we find ourselves with Columbus-native Mike Pence in the White House, demonizing refugees as undeserving of our support despite the internationalization and positive impact immigrant families had on the fabric of that community.

My approach to immigration policy

  1. We must pass legislation to formally approve DACA and protect immigrants who entered the country as children from removal by future presidents (e.g., through the DREAM Act).
  2. We must secure our borders — but we also must recognize that the bulk of undocumented immigrants to the U.S. are visa overstays, not illegal border crossings. Border walls are an expensive waste of resources paid by U.S. taxpayers, not Mexico as Donald Trump promised.
  3. The CIA and FBI should delegate more authority to local law enforcement agencies in border regions, so as not to frustrate the ability of those “boots on the ground” to coordinate with cross-border allies to fight drug and crime syndicates.
  4. For most of U.S. history, our immigration policy has been biased towards a national-origin based preference system, tending to favor immigration from countries who “look like us.” At various times in recent history our immigration policy was biased against southern Europeans, Irish, eastern Europeans, and Chinese. Today, it is biased against people from North Africa and the Middle East. In all eras, policymakers framed these biases with concerns about national security or changing American values; in hindsight, they were simply xenophobic. We have partially adopted a “skills-based” approach in our H1B program, but even there, an applicant’s country of origin matters, frustrating the intent of that particular visa. I favor a stronger shift to preferences based on the employment needs of the U.S. economy.
  5. Notwithstanding the prior point, we must guard against extreme isolationist policies supported by Donald Trump and some Republicans that prioritize  a “skills-based” immigration model as an alternative to moral and humanitarian preferences for family reunification and assistance to refugees and other persecuted groups. A “points-based” system need not favor only skills, and I will commit to making sure that family reunification, humanitarian assistance to refugees, and protection for those who risk persecution in their home countries are also preferentially favored.
  6. We must close private immigration detention centers. We detain too many immigrants in facilities that dehumanize them and harken back to dark days of Japanese internment camps. We are better than that as a country and should not allow these facilities to remain open.
  7. We must limit the ability of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to interject themselves into local law enforcement. Local police forces almost unanimously oppose the federal overreach that ICE has applied to compel disclosure of immigration status. Those programs frustrate community policing, put victims of domestic violence at risk and increase our risk for communicable diseases — all because they create a culture wherein otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants are reluctant to engage with public officials. Some cities and states have responded by adopting public policy guidelines that limit their cooperation with ICE in the enforcement of federal immigration law when federal immigration law may infringe upon an individual’s right to due process, but we need to provide them with responsible federal policy — not to ask them to correct our mistakes.
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