"Now you have to do the work," Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper declared in late April, as he signed a bill allowing students in-state college tuition if they had been educated in Colorado high schools, even if their parents had brought them into the country without legal status.
Work hard, contribute to our country, think of yourself as American. That's the attitude that built America.
Ensuring that the United States continues to attract the best and brightest from around the world and turn them into Americans is what real leaders like Colorado's Sen. Michael Bennet — one of the "Gang of 8" — are trying to do with the bipartisan immigration bill being debated in Congress.
Immigrants built Colorado, from German immigrant Adolph Coors, whose Rocky Mountain beer is now a global icon and major local employer, to those born abroad who settled our gold rush towns and mining camps. Between 1887 and 1889, Colorado had so many immigrants that we printed our laws in German, English, and Spanish. Less than a century ago, immigrants were one-fifth of Denver's population. And after World War II, Colorado's governor asked the Japanese who had been interned here to stay, and build our state.
But in the last few decades, America's immigration system has become a broken patchwork of over-regulation and incoherent policies. We all know it needs fixing, and no state can fix it alone. Individual state laws cannot do the job of fixing a fundamentally flawed system. However, the bipartisan national legislation in the Senate could.
Current policy ignores our country's economy, instead giving preference (and 75 percent of all visas) to those with family members already here. Keeping families together is an important American value, of course. So is building our economy. The new bill would focus on a merit-based system that privileges those who have the skills and education our country needs.
If the immigration bill passes, it means jobs for Americans. In Colorado, one in 10 entrepreneurs is an immigrant. That's not unusual: 40 percent of America's Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants, and they founded nearly half of the top 50 venture-backed start-ups in the U.S. In high-tech, immigrants play an even larger role, founding one in four new firms.
Recognizing that Colorado has the third-highest concentration of tech jobs in the country, and that immigrants were job-creators, Sen. Bennet worked with Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, to make sure the bill included a three-year renewable visa for the best foreign entrepreneurs to build companies and invest in America. Those who created enough jobs could eventually earn a green card.
Some have argued that the bill will bring down wages and let outsiders take American jobs. But the legislation does exactly the opposite. It enables immigrant workers to get paid a decent wage and have benefits. Meanwhile, employers could no longer exploit immigrants to keep wages down for Americans. Everyone has to follow the law, and that means everyone gets a fairer shake.
Such sensible policies mean the bill is drawing fire from both sides of the partisan divide. That alone suggests it's doing something right. On the right, the Republican-led House has released its version of the bill, which beefs up border security while making it harder for those here illegally to come out of the shadows and have a path to legality. Even so, the right-wing Heritage Foundation has taken to calling the bipartisan bill an "amnesty," no matter how hard the provisions for citizenship are made.
Meanwhile, on the left, pro-immigrant groups and Catholic organizations have declared the bill too punitive, requiring too much work for immigrants to become citizens, and punishing immigrants who are poor.
The bill recognizes that knowing who is in our country is essential to our security. We can't have people living under the radar. While most immigrants are law-abiding, coming here illegally creates a thriving market in human traffickers and other criminals who prey on immigrants and on our system. Destroying these illegal markets means providing a legal way for immigrants to come forward, and setting that bar at a level that is not impossible to reach is essential.
As Republican Sen. John McCain, a bill supporter, has explained, the path was deliberately hard in the original bill; it doesn't need additional provisions. Aspiring Americans must spend 10 years in a provisional status before they can apply for citizenship, pay a fine, go to the back of the line, and demonstrate their commitment to our country.
This House bill overemphasizes the southern border at the cost of real security. More than 40 percent of those here illegally came to the U.S. on legitimate visas and overstayed. The 9/11 bombers came in through airports, and the failed millennium bomber entered through Canada. More fences in the Southwest may feel more secure, but in reality, it would be better to invest in the people and technologies that process visas at all of our borders.
Anger on both sides of the aisle suggests that this bill might be that rare spectacle in Washington: a true, centrist comprise. But compromise isn't popular in the Beltway these days; this bill needs our support to make it law.
Immigration policy is not about keeping people out. It's about creating a common-sense system that keeps America strong, competitive, and true to our founding promise.