Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Officials disagree about solutions but agree it’s time for immigration reform

While top public officials gathered for the University of Denver Strategic Issues Program (SIP) on immigration reform had different ideas for a solution, they agreed there needs to be real reform.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens joined David Martin, principle deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, for the April 30 SIP panel discussion.

Owens, who called a special immigration session of the Colorado Legislature during his tenure in 2006, told panelists he understands why immigrants come to this country and said he isn’t against allowing immigrants in, provided they come in legally. In fact, Owens said, the United States could benefit from immigration if efforts were made to lure the most educated and skilled.

But an uncontrolled influx and unsecure borders are not the solution, he said.

“I think we need to close the border … I’ve been in Israel, I’ve been right up against the fence, it works,” he said. “If you want to reform the system, you do have to close the border … I don’t know how to do it, but it is possible.”

Owens said other keys to controlling immigration include a strong North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), economic growth in Mexico and a guest worker program.

Deportation of the 10- to 20-million immigrants already here illegally is not practical, he said. But those who came without documentation shouldn’t be rewarded with a preferred path to citizenship.

Hickenlooper agreed the current system is dysfunctional but scoffed at those who maintain that Denver is a “sanctuary city” unwilling to deal with illegal immigration. He said Denver authorities do what they can to cooperate with federal officials but said the government is understaffed and unable to cope with the problem. Without federal support, he said, the city can’t use its limited resources trying to catch and deport those who came to this country without documentation.

Hickenlooper and Martin both brought up the need for a secure identification card and workplace verification program. Martin said the government’s E-Verify workplace program is getting better with each passing year and can help employers avoid hiring workers here illegally.

Closing the border completely is a daunting proposition, Martin said. Smugglers will continue to seek areas of weakness. What could slow the tide of immigration is a workplace verification system and strong federal enforcement behind it to eliminate the one magnet that lures immigrants: jobs. Without jobs to come to, the payoff for illegal immigration is gone.

And despite some differences, all three — representing state, federal and local governance — agreed the current system isn’t working.

“Our immigration system is dysfunctional,” Hickenlooper said. “What we need more than anything else is smart reform.”

The Strategic Issues Program panel, led by Chairman Jim Griesemer, meets next on May 14, when members will hear a global perspective on immigration from Demetrios Papademetriou,  president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank dedicated exclusively to the study of international migration. The panel also will hear a financial perspective on the issue from Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association.

The nonpartisan SIP panel is made up of scholars and business, social and political experts who expect to hear from all sides of the immigration issue this spring, then craft a framework for immigration reform that will be presented in early December.

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