By Kelly Ayotte
Everybody agrees that America's immigration system is broken, threatening our security and holding back our economy. The combination of porous borders and lax enforcement has made us a magnet for illegal immigration.
With an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, the status quo isn't working - it's de facto amnesty. We need immigration reform that serves the best interests of our country - a solution that finally secures our southern border, implements an employment verification system, stops future waves of illegal immigrants, deports undocumented criminals, creates a tough but fair means for those who are here illegally to earn citizenship, and allows high-skilled and other needed legal immigrants to work here and help grow our economy.
For too long, politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington have failed to lead on this issue. And no doubt there will be naysayers in this debate who will continue to make excuses for inaction. But I ran for the Senate to make tough, independent decisions to strengthen our country, and that's what it will take to solve our nation's immigration problems.
This week, the Senate will take up immigration reform legislation that recently passed the Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan basis. After careful review of this bill, and after meeting with Granite Staters, I will support it and plan to vote for amendments offered to strengthen it.
We need to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, and we need to bring undocumented people out of the shadows to separate those seeking economic opportunity from those seeking to harm us (who must be deported). Here's how this bill does that:
It starts by finally securing our southern border. Consistent with my priorities, the legislation includes more border agents, more fencing, and better surveillance technology. And during the upcoming debate, I will support strengthening the legislation's border security measures even further.
Also, under this bill all employers would be required to use an employment verification system - known as "E-Verify" - to check that job applicants are lawful for employment. To put teeth into the law, employers would face fines and possible criminal penalties for violations of E-Verify requirements.
Additionally, the legislation cracks down on those who abuse our visa system. Right now, 40 percent of illegal immigrants originally came legally but overstayed their visas. This bill creates an exit system feature that would enable the Department of Homeland Security to more vigorously track, pursue and remove those who overstay their visas.
The legislation also includes strict requirements for those illegal immigrants who are already here. Before any of these 11 million could earn a green card, they would go to the back of the line, not receive means-tested federal benefits and Obamacare subsidies, and they would be required to pay fines, pay taxes, and pass background checks, learn English, and secure a job. The minimum most immigrants would have to wait to earn a green card would be ten years - and 13 years for naturalization. And this timeline is dependent on first meeting border security and employment enforcement measures.
In addition to fixing our illegal immigration problem, the bill also takes steps to modernize our legal immigration system. To help ensure our hospitality and agricultural sectors are able to fill jobs that Americans won't perform, the bill creates a new guest worker visa program. And the legislation addresses concerns that I've heard frequently from New Hampshire's business community, especially the high-tech industry: the outdated cap on visas for highly-skilled workers is holding back our economy.
After companies make every effort to recruit Americans to perform particular jobs and can't find any - especially those with expertise in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) - they are forced to look elsewhere. This legislation addresses that shortfall by raising the cap on H-1B visas. And to train the American innovators of tomorrow, it creates new STEM education programs - from K-12 to higher education - financed through a $1,000 fee for those applying for H-1B visas.
Moving to a more merit-based immigration system is good for our economy. By placing an emphasis on skills, we're harnessing the expertise and ingenuity of the most talented immigrants - especially those who have been educated in our colleges. They will put their energy and their ideas to work in our country - starting businesses and creating jobs for Americans.
As a nation of immigrants, we must remember that we're all descended from people who came here from somewhere else in search of a better life. In generations past, immigration has enriched our nation culturally and economically. We are all heirs to the dreams and hard work of the immigrants who helped build this country - neighborhood by neighborhood.
But the broken immigration system we have now is unworthy of a great nation. It's time for Washington to tackle this problem head on. If we miss this opportunity, our illegal immigration problems will only get much worse and we will not realize the full economic potential of America.