The Missing Leg of Immigration Reform

In a speech this morning in Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the Obama administration remains committed to enacting real immigration reform. In a key passage in her remarks, she said reform must contain three essential components:

Let me be clear: when I talk about “immigration reform,” I’m referring to what I call the “three-legged stool” that includes a commitment to serious and effective enforcement, improved legal flows for families and workers, and a firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here. That’s the way that this problem has to be solved, because we need all three aspects to build a successful system.

The phrase “improved legal flows” is rather vague, but it points toward some kind of expanded visa program to allow future workers to enter the country legally. Our current immigration system offers no legal channel for anywhere near a sufficient number of foreign-born workers to enter the country legally to fill the lower-skilled jobs our economy creates in times of normal growth.

I’ve made the argument for expanded legal immigration in a recent op-ed, and in a Free Trade Bulletin when the Senate last debated reform in 2007.

After a promising start, Secretary Napolitano spent most of the rest of her speech touting how much has been done on the enforcement side, and almost nothing about how we can expand opportunities in the future for legal immigration as an alternative to illegal immigration.

Without that crucial third leg, Congress will just be repeating the two-legged failure of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.