Although it does not command the attention of a large part of Washington’s foreign policy elite, the most pressing foreign policy issue facing the Nation may well be that of illegal immigration.
Illegal immigration is seen as a domestic policy issue, and it certainly is one. But when it comes to illegal immigration, there is no clear line between foreign and domestic policy. On the one hand, the challenge of having uncounted millions of undocumented aliens working, residing, and having families in the United States simply has not been dealt with head-on. On the other hand, America has long devoted its, time, energy, personnel and financial resources to the development or reconstruction of other nations, whether in Africa, southeastern Europe or the Middle East and Central Asia. Yet it is the lopsided economic condition of so many states south of America’s border that has led to the mass migration that is now seen as a major domestic challenge for Washington.
There are ways to regularize the status of illegal immigrants—and they are indeed violating immigration laws when they arrive without having gone through proper procedures to obtain appropriate documentation—without either granting blanket amnesty or advocating a chimeric policy of “self-deportation.” One way that has not been sufficiently explored is to create a fast-track national-service program akin to that available to immigrants who enlist in the military.
The United States desperately needs to improve its infrastructure. It has the available manpower to do so in the large number of undocumented aliens, many of whom already work illegally for construction companies. Under a special national service program, every family of aliens would be required to have at least one member who is signed up to a five-year commitment. The program would put him or her to work in infrastructure renewal—bridges, roads, buildings—initially at the minimal hourly wage, with wages rising commensurate with performance.
These workers would receive the same benefits as other full-time employees, including health insurance. And they would pay taxes at appropriate rates, as well as social security, Medicare and Medicaid. They would also be required to take English courses, so as to afford them the upward mobility that only a working knowledge of English can provide.
After five years, these tax-paying, English-speaking workers and their immediate families (spouses and children) would qualify to become American citizens. No longer would they have to compound their illegal arrival with fraudulent actions such as forging identity documents of various kinds or evading taxes. Their families would be secure; their children would not require special legislation to benefit from America’s educational system.
There is a broad national consensus that America’s infrastructure is crumbling. There is a similar consensus that the immigration crisis cannot go on much longer. Working both problems in tandem is a way to overcome both challenges expeditiously.
Still more needs to be done. Washington must reorient its foreign assistance programs to focus on helping poorer Latin American states far more than it has done in the recent past. Central America remains a haven for the drug trade with skewed economies that have yet to spawn a viable middle class. As long as the gap between rich and poor remains as wide as it is south of the border, there will be no end to the northward flow of illegal immigration, especially once the U.S. economy truly begins to improve. Only by working with states of Central America to obtain the very same objectives that the United States has been seeking at great cost but little success for a decade in Afghanistan—eliminating corruption, reviving the economy, developing alternatives to drug production—will prospects for reducing illegal immigration finally improve.
President Obama won reelection thanks in no small part to the Hispanic vote. That community, and all Americans, now want to see what he will actually do about the challenge of illegal immigration. Supporting a national service plan for immigrants, and refocusing aid toward the Western Hemisphere, would be a good start toward coping with—and ultimately overcoming—that challenge sooner rather than later.
Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest 's advisory council.