In the shadows of the Chugach, the Anchorage neighborhood of Mountain View is a bustling community that boasts the most diverse census tract in the entire United States of America, according to recent research. Walking down the street or entering a restaurant, you encounter a wide range of Alaskans speaking dozens of different languages. It’s our own 907 ‘melting pot,’ and there are dozens of such areas around our state where the wide range of backgrounds can be seen through our clothes, food and dialects.
It’s places like these that serve as a reminder that we are a nation of immigrants, dating back from the Pilgrims to Ellis Island to our 21st century wave of aspiring Americans. Though our founding fathers -- fresh from a foreign country themselves -- could not have envisioned the incredible numbers and range of nationalities present across the United States in 2013, they were so committed to diversity, they engraved it onto our coins: E Pluribus Unum -- or, “From Many, One.” They realized that the wide range of views and experience reflected among our populace gave us strength.
Not only are we a nation of immigrants, we are also -- just as critically -- a nation of laws. When laws are broken, there are consequences. If you break the law, you pay a price. If you hurt someone, you are sent to jail. If you drive your car too fast, you pay a fine.
These are the twin realities my 67 Senate colleagues and I worked to balance as we recently navigated a path to bipartisan immigration reform. Earlier this year, when a plan was originally envisioned by the so-called “Gang of Eight,” I told Alaska that I had clear goals in mind: securing our border, streamlining the legal immigration system, and providing a clear and responsible path to citizenship for those already here, who are already living and working in the shadows under a form of de facto amnesty.
It’s difficult to get 68 Senators to support any large piece of legislation these days, but beyond that singular accomplishment, there was unanimous agreement that our current system is broken and needs to be repaired. I voted for the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill last month based on my belief that we could not ‘un-break’ the system and go back in time or undo the damage done; the key priorities in this bill were to fix our system intelligently, impose penalties and move forward.
After a lengthy and spirited debate, I believe we arrived at a workable solution to our current situation -- one that has teeth, brains and heart.
When I say the bill has teeth, I am referring in part to an amendment I co-sponsored to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. The amendment I co-sponsored doubles the number of border patrol agents and requires additional fencing along the southwest border. The measure I co-sponsored also requires that the government employ technologies like a biometric exit system so we know that visitors who are supposed to depart the U.S. do so. This was a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission and something we need to do.
The bill also contains a nationwide mandatory requirement that employers use the Internet tool E-verify to make sure they only hire authorized employees; this represents a crackdown not only on the side of those who cross our border, but also on those employers who encourage them by looking the other way when hiring undocumented workers.
Moreover, the bill we passed does not provide amnesty for undocumented individuals who are in America today. When I say it provides ‘brains’ to our current broken immigration system, I am referring to how the legislation replaces the current system of de facto amnesty with a road map to an earned path to citizenship for those prepared to meet the rigorous requirements in the bill. These requirements include paying fines, continuous work requirements, maintenance of good moral character, paying taxes and learning English. Those who stray from this path will be asked to leave. And the path to citizenship is not easy, requiring completion of border security triggers to be in place and certified before applications for green cards to be issued -- a process estimated to be approximately 13 years.
Lastly, the bill has heart because these strict rules do not force families to be dissolved and undocumented individuals taken from their brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. As I told the Catholic Hispanic Ministry in May: when our laws separate families and dissolve human dignity, we owe it to our nation’s principles to do what we can to improve those laws.
The bill has been sent to the House of Representatives, and I remain optimistic that that chamber will consider this issue so that our nation can forge ahead with smart policy. We owe it to our nation’s future, but we also owe it to our past. We must remain the country that started out by believing “E Pluribus Unum” is such a priority that we put it our buildings and money, and create innovative ways to make sure that this 18th Century spirit is as strong as ever in the 21st.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate.
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