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Can immigration be reformed?

"Employers should be recognized as allies and be provided tools necessary to support immigration policies," according to a DU report. Photo: Cristian Peña Vázquez

To navigate new lands, travelers need a map. To construct skyscrapers, builders need a blueprint. And to craft effective national immigration reform policy, a nonpartisan University of Denver panel may be just what the country needs.

Led by Director Jim Griesemer, DU’s Strategic Issues Program (SIP) each year sets out to see whether 20 leaders from varied backgrounds can examine an issue facing the state of Colorado or the nation in depth and then develop solutions through consensus. In 2009 the panel sought to develop a pragmatic solution to the multitude of issues entangled with immigration, both legal and illegal.

The result is the panel’s report, Architecture for Immigration Reform: Fitting the Pieces of Public Policy.

“The question of immigration policy remains one of our most intractable issues,” the report states. “It has become a Gordian knot that even bipartisan attempts of recent years have failed to untie. It is a knot pulled ever tighter on one end by immigration advocates and on the other by immigration opponents.”

Goals for immigration should be, in this order: national security, social vitality, economic advantage, family unification and refugee relief.

Released in December, the 49-page report lays out recommendations for reform built around a central notion that any new policies should be “grounded in creating economic and social benefits to the nation as a whole while maintaining national security.”

Griesemer says developing priorities and a central theme — the betterment of the country — helped bring focus to an issue that has been the topic of rancorous debate everywhere from talk radio to Congress.

“It’s intended to look at the problem in a practical way,” Griesemer says. “There is no silver bullet that is going to deal with this problem because it’s so complicated. If you fix one part and not the other, you’re just going to switch the problems around.”

The SIP panel was composed of experts in business, government and education, including beer magnate and former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pete Coors (MBA ’70) and Polly Baca, a former Democratic state senator and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Over a six-month span, panelists heard from more than 30 speakers — leaders in health care, venture capital, education, law enforcement, labor and immigration policy, as well as Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and former Colorado governors Richard Lamm and Bill Owens.

The SIP panel’s recommendations include:

Recognize global migration as an opportunity, not a reality to be ignored.

Immigration policy should deliver economic, social and other benefits to the United States.

Immigration priorities should place U.S. interests first.

Click here. to see the complete list.

“I applaud the University of Denver’s Strategic Issues Program for its impressive work on the 2009 immigration panel,” Ritter said after the report was released. “Once again, DU has tackled one of the most challenging public policy issues of our day and demonstrated the ability to assemble a diverse group of stakeholders to develop recommendations in a thoughtful and bipartisan manner.”

Among the panel’s recommendations are calls for tighter borders, simplified visa categories, government English language classes coupled with English language proficiency requirements for permanent residency, and a mechanism for those here illegally to register with the government and begin a process for legal residency.

U.S. Representative Jared Polis, D-Colo., says he supports the latter recommendation.

“I have long advocated that a pathway for undocumented immigrants to seek earned legal status and citizenship is essential to securing the safety of our nation’s borders and businesses,” he says. “Colorado’s immigrants help boost our labor and consumer markets, expand the workforce and drive our economy. Real, long-lasting immigration reform must include a pathway to earned legal status and citizenship for the millions of immigrants who have made lives for themselves and their families in the United States.”

The panel also recommended a secure national ID card for all employees, something Owens, a Republican, said he would support.

“I’d like to see a verifiable national ID so that we can identify who among us are citizens, who among us are here legally, and almost by definition, those who aren’t here legally don’t have a card,” Owens told the panel in April 2009. “It is possible to make such a card that is verifiable and very difficult to counterfeit.”

The report was distributed to more than 6,000 policy makers, business and political leaders and interested organizations, including every member of Congress. And it was met with enthusiasm in regional and national media. Denver Post columnist Tina Griego wrote, “What this nonpartisan panel has done over many months is give us a way to talk about how we talk about immigration reform. It did so by introducing the rational to the irrational, by proposing an overarching goal.”

Meanwhile, Post editorial writer Dan Haley called the report an “effective blueprint for what bipartisan legislation might look like.”

“Much of what the panel came up with makes sense,” Haley wrote. “The border needs to be more secure. Immigrants need to learn to speak English. And employers, who shouldn’t have to play immigration cop, need a secure and reliable system to weed out legal from illegal when hiring.”

Denver author Helen Thorpe is another who thinks the SIP approach makes sense. Thorpe explored the immigration issue in her 2009 book Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, which was named an Oprah Book Club pick and one of The Washington Post’s top books of 2009.

Thorpe, wife of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, based the book on her personal relationships and experiences with four young women originally from Mexico and living in Colorado. The story follows the girls from high school through college. The girls had varying degrees of legal status, from illegal immigrant to full citizenship. Three of them attended and graduated from DU.

“I am often asked at book readings what my recommendations would be for policy change,” Thorpe says. “It’s phenomenal to have a resource like the DU report to point people toward — and when they want to know what changes I would recommend, that’s where I send them.

“I’m delighted to be able to steer people toward a document that offers so much helpful advice about how to move forward.”

With rumblings beginning on Capitol Hill late in 2009 that immigration could be the next big Congressional issue after health care and the economy, the report is well timed to become part of the debate.

“If there were a simple answer to the question of immigration, the issue would have been resolved long ago,” the report concludes. “An effective immigration policy is about applying enlightened self-interest to capture a national opportunity. It is about creating benefit to the United States in a highly competitive global economy. In the process of benefiting the United States there is also the ability to provide opportunity to talented people from other countries who can contribute to a stronger, more vital American society.

“Immigration policy need not be a win-lose game between the nation and prospective immigrants.”

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