Four Conservative Principles to Guide Immigration Reform

David Inserra /



Speaker Boehner is reportedly preparing his list of principles for immigration reform. Here are four conservative principles for immigration reform—based on Heritage’s “Advancing the Immigration Nation: Heritage’s Positive Path to Immigration and Border Security Reform”—that Speaker Boehner and the House should keep in mind.

  1. Enhance security and enforcement efforts. Perhaps the most important immigration reform the U.S. needs to make is simply to enforce its immigration laws. Lack of enforcement has reached unprecedented levels under President Obama, who has openly directed immigration agencies not to prosecute different classes of unlawful immigrants. Such lawlessness sets a terrible precedent for the rule of law, encourages additional illegal immigration, and leaves known criminal aliens on the streets. Rather than hamstring U.S. enforcement efforts, the U.S. needs to fundamentally revitalize them. Such an effort includes expanding the role of state and local governments through programs like Section 287(g), which trains and enables local law enforcement to assist the 6,000 enforcement agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The U.S. southern border also remains a source of illegal immigration. The U.S. should invest in additional infrastructure that will hinder illegal immigration and support trade and legal immigration. To increase the efficiency of the Border Patrol, the U.S. should pursue targeted investments in technologies like sensors, cameras, and drones. The U.S. should also enhance cooperation with Mexico through existing programs such as the Merida Initiative and Border Enforcement Security Taskforces. A stable and secure Mexico can help the U.S. stop illegal immigration and related criminal activities before they ever reach the U.S. border.
  2. Reform the legal immigration and visa system. The purpose of the immigration and visa system is to efficiently bring in immigrants and non-immigrant workers to support the U.S. economy. Currently, it fails in its purpose and lacks efficiency. Would-be immigrants and visitors often face bureaucratic hurdles and time-consuming delays. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should be reformed so that it is not entirely funded on the fees it collects but primarily through normal appropriations.The visa application process should also be streamlined and the U.S. should raise the cap on high-skilled visas such as H-1Bs. Additionally, temporary worker programs should be established to ensure that seasonal industries like construction and agriculture have access to the labor they need, without increasing the tax burden on hard-working Americans. The U.S. should also expand policies like the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allow pre-cleared residents of friendly nations to visit the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days. The VWP allows visitors to cut through the bureaucracy and lets the government focus its efforts on higher-risk applicants.
  3. Reject amnesty. Despite the political pressure to pass some form of amnesty, it is not sound policy for several reasons. First and foremost, it actually makes the illegal immigration problem worse by encouraging additional illegal immigration. Second, amnesty is incredibly unfair to both Americans and to those who obey the U.S.’s immigration laws. Lastly, amnesty will cost U.S. taxpayers as much as $6 trillion in net future costs as unlawful immigrants gain access to the full range of government benefits, including welfare and entitlement programs.
  4. Take a real step-by-step approach. The House should follow a true step-bystep approach to reform immigration. This doesn’t mean passing a bunch of new bills, including amnesty as Rep. Goodlatte has recently suggested. Such an approach is essentially the same as the Senate’s massive, Obamacare-style bill. Congress should begin by taking steps to fix what is broken in our border security, interior enforcement, and legal immigration and visa system. Much of this doesn’t even require new legislation, simply more appropriate guidance through the budget process and faithful enforcement by the President. Given how harmful and divisive amnesty is, any proposal that includes it is anything but step by step.

As the House moves to consider immigration reform in 2014, these four principles should guide its decisions. By improving enforcement and security efforts,  fixing the legal immigration system, rejecting amnesty, and doing it all in a step-by-step manner, the House can stop kicking the can down the road and squarely address America’s need for immigration reform.