In today’s deeply divisive immigration debate, where many seem to prefer fiery rhetoric and outrage to finding an agreeable solution, perhaps the solution can be derived from our own country’s history. One way to potentially satisfy the concerns of both sides would be to bring back an old icon of American immigration, but with a decidedly modern twist — a new Ellis Island.
From 1892 through 1954, over 12 million immigrants passed through America’s first federal immigration station at Ellis Island.
Today over 100 million Americans or almost 40 percent of the nation’s population are descended from immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. At its peak, Ellis Island processed upwards of 5,000 immigrants a day, while following strict standards set by the federal government.
Immigrants were required to provide basic biographical information and were screened for medical problems. They were also interviewed on their job skills and whether they had brought an enough money with them to start their new life. Approximately 2 percent were denied admission, either because of medical issues or because of their lack of job skills they were considered “likely to become a public charge.” While not perfect, this system was designed to ensure that immigrants would be able to contribute to society, rather than becoming a drain on the government.
The best way to satisfy the desires of everyone on all sides of the political spectrum may be to bring back Ellis Island.
Not the physical island of course, but rather to build a new Ellis Island along the southern border to process immigrants on a large scale with a more modern screening process that focuses not only on asylum applications, but also work applications, with a bonus of helping immigrants to find the necessary employment to justify their application.
The current border processing stations focus primarily on asylum applications and have been roundly criticized for their slow pace. The combination of the delays, as well as the possibility of rejection, have led many would-be immigrants to avoid the station altogether by crossing the border illegally at a different point. But this process could be reversed by replacing these asylum stations with a new Ellis Island model that incentivizes people to enter the United States through the port of entry, instead of crossing illegally.
The new Ellis Island will, of course, screen immigrants for criminal records, as well as prior deportations using more sophisticated background checks than the old Ellis Island method of simply asking people if they were ever in jail.
It will also conduct asylum applications, just as the current border stations do, by enforcing the clear definitions of asylum under U.S. law — for example, leaving a home country due to poverty, crime, or drugs — gang infestation is not justification for asylum.
However, where the new Ellis Island model departs drastically from the current model is that it will process applications for immigrants who wish to come to the United States for work. While the work visa process is normally difficult, requiring the applicant to show a special skill or an existing job offer, the new Ellis Island will allow any motivated worker to apply and will even assist them to find employment, so that when they enter the country, they will already have a job waiting for them.
The way that this can be accomplished is by having every applicant provide their biographical information, experience, and skill sets to immigration officers. The computer will then use the answers to these interview questions to populate a résumé form for each applicant, which will be placed onto a website. Potential employers, who pass a basic screening by the government to ensure that they are legitimate, will be given access to the database and select potential employees, who they can then interview by video teleconference. Once an employer decides to hire an immigrant, their applications will be quickly processed and the immigrant will enter the United States with a work visa and guaranteed employment.
The benefits to this new system are significant.
Families who wish to enter the country shall be afforded a real opportunity to do so legally, reducing the incentive to enter illegally. There will be no government mandated immigration quotas or caps, as the immigration rate will be dictated by the job market. If the jobs are available, then people will be granted entry. This alleviates the concern that unregulated immigration will result in too many people and not enough jobs. It will also ensure that these immigrants are paid on-the-books, with income tax withheld. The benefit to the workers of being paid on the books is that it will significantly reduce abuses by employers, who often deny overtime pay and other employment rights to undocumented workers.
It also removes all legitimate excuses to avoid immigrating legally. Those who wish to bypass the new Ellis Island and cross the border illegally are likely motivated by something more sinister than just trying to make a better life for their families.
Building a border wall would then be targeted at stopping criminals and terrorists, not migrant workers.
The United States is a nation of immigrants and will continue to be. As the president implements his strategy to build factories and return the United States to its former glory as the world leader in manufacturing quality products, an expanded workforce will also be required. Just as the Industrial Revolution and the economic boom following the Civil War lured millions of immigrants to Ellis Island to fill these manufacturing jobs, today immigration reform and economic reform should complement each other as part of comprehensive strategy.
We can strike a balance between protecting the border, while being open and welcoming to new immigrants.
Anti-illegal immigration doesn’t have to mean anti-immigration any more than pro-immigration must mean pro-illegal immigration. This proposed policy is pro-immigration while curbing illegal immigration.
When President Trump first began talking about building a wall during the campaign, everyone was so focused on the wall that many ignored the rest of his statement: “a big, fat beautiful door right in the middle of the wall.”
Although the wall has never been more important, it’s also time to start focusing on the door.
As New York City’s 40th Police Commissioner, Bernard Kerik was in command of the NYPD on September 11, 2001, and responsible for the city’s response, rescue, recovery, and the investigative efforts of the most substantial terror attack in world history. His 35-year career has been recognized in more than 100 awards for meritorious and heroic service, including a presidential commendation for heroism by President Ronald Reagan, two Distinguished Service Awards from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, The Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and an appointment as Honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
Timothy Parlatore is a Navy veteran and prominent New York City attorney. A Naval Academy graduate, former Surface Warfare Officer, and Naval Security Forces commander, he now focuses on constitutional issues, white collar investigations and defense, as well as complex civil litigation.
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