Statement on Earned Legalization of the Undocumented

December 8, 2003

The American Jewish Committee

Statement on Earned Legalization of the Undocumented

Just prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush and President Vicente Fox of Mexico were negotiating several proposals on immigration reform with regard to how best to regulate and facilitate the cross-border flow of goods and people, while addressing the need to prevent unauthorized entries into the U.S., including human smuggling. After the attacks, as the country turned its attention to issues of homeland security and the war on terror, these discussions were placed on hold. Recently, however, the subject has returned to the fore with the introduction of various legislative proposals and calls to action concerning earned legalization1 by numerous civil rights, labor, religious, and other organizations.
***
Despite efforts over the past twenty years to curb illegal immigration through employer sanctions and increased border enforcement, approximately seven million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States today, and this undocumented population increases by approximately 350,000 each year. While Mexico is the largest source country for undocumented immigration to the United States, with a sixty-nine percent share of the total undocumented resident population in the country, the undocumented come from places as diverse as China and El Salvador. Approximately thirty-three percent of the undocumented population in the country entered legally on a temporary basis and failed to depart, while the majority entered the United States illegally.

In the past, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has generally supported legalization programs, rather than mass deportations, for illegal immigrants who have been living in the United States for an extended period of time. For example, in its 1980 Statement on Undocumented Persons, AJC emphasized that "[m]ass deportation of the millions who are now here unlawfully must be rejected out of hand," as many "illegal aliens have children who are American-born and hence are fully entitled to remain in this country. To expel their parents would violate the concept of family unification which the American Jewish Committee has always viewed as an essential cornerstone of any immigration policy. Further, in political as well as human terms, the forcible expulsion of millions of men, women and children would cause incalculable bitterness and division within this nation and would be utterly devastating to the image of America abroad as a champion of human rights."
***
With the understanding that it is crucial for all participants in a society to have a stake in that society, AJC has consistently recognized that serious injustices inevitably result from having a class of people in our country who lack meaningful rights under our laws. Millions of undocumented aliens residing in the United States are subject to abuse and exploitation, both because they lack certain legal rights and because they justifiably fear deportation if they seek the protection of our laws. Bringing this group of undocumented migrants out of the shadows would not only be consistent with our democratic values, but would contribute to our national security and economic well-being. Specifically, a new earned legalization program will enable the country to better focus its resources on tracking down potential terrorists. Such a program would reduce the market for smugglers and other black market activities, including forged documents such as Social Security cards and drivers licenses, that have contributed to the numerous deaths of those who have attempted to cross the U.S. border illegally, and pose a serious national security threat.

Critics have argued that the last significant legalization of undocumented immigrants that took place pursuant to the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 resulted in increases-not decreases-in illegal immigration. We believe, however, that such increases were not due to the legalization but to deficiencies in other aspects of this nation's immigration program. We urge that these problems be redressed through more stringent enforcement of our immigration laws, and as recommended below, through improvements in security, funding, and increased cooperation among source countries.

Recognizing that the majority of undocumented people come to America primarily to find work, to establish stable families and make useful contributions to our economy and society, while at the same time noting the critical need to increase the security of our nation's borders and better incorporate newcomers into American society and culture, the American Jewish Committee hereby reaffirms its position as stated in its 1980 Statement on Undocumented Persons and recommends the following additional measures:
  1. Earned Legalization. AJC favors the granting of a new, one-time, earned legalization to all persons who have been residing in the country unlawfully for a substantial period of time, who are otherwise law abiding people, who have a demonstrated work history in the U.S, and the desire to become contributing, productive and full members of American society. Those who have committed serious crimes unrelated to their entry and/or those who support terrorist organizations, financially or otherwise, should be excluded from the program.

  2. Enforcement. Much greater efforts should be expended to enforce existing immigration laws. In keeping with our recognition of the urgent need for reform of our visa, border, and admissions systems in order to keep out those who seek to enter illegally or who wish to do us harm, as stated in our December 2002 Statement on Immigration, we support efforts by the government, but stress that more effective border security procedures should be developed, including improvements in the system that tracks foreign nationals who enter and leave the U.S. We also urge that such enhancements include better sharing of information among government agencies to verify which, if any, visa applicants support terrorist organizations, financially or otherwise. These efforts should be incorporated into any earned legalization program. At the same time, we urge the humane treatment of those in the United States illegally.

  3. Student Adjustment. Many young people living in the United States illegally were brought by their parents when they were minors and should, therefore, not be penalized for the choices made by their parents. Accordingly, legalization should be granted to those students who have spent a significant portion of their lives in the United States, participated in the American educational system and demonstrated a desire to become contributing, productive and full members of American society. Further, such students should be afforded resident tuition at state colleges and universities to the same extent as legal residents and citizens. Students who have committed serious crimes and/or who support terrorist organizations, financially or otherwise, should be excluded from the program.

  4. Funding. Meaningful immigration reform and corresponding national security and anti-terrorism efforts will require significant budgetary resources at the local, state and national levels. We, therefore, urge that any earned legalization program include provisions for sufficient funding and personnel for border control, immigration, law enforcement and other related agencies, as well as the State Department's visa and consular affairs offices.

  5. Obligations of Source Countries. Concomitant with an earned legalization program, we encourage the United States government to urge those nations that are the main sources of illegal immigrants and smugglers to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement in securing our common borders


    As adopted by the Board of Governors
    December 8, 2003



    1"Earned legalization" refers to the process by which aliens living in the United States without authorization are given the opportunity to earn legal status over time, from temporary to permanent residence, and, depending on eligibility, eventual citizenship.
Copyright 2014/2015 AJC