California Forum

The issue isn’t immigration. It’s how to get people to immigrate the legal way

FILE A group of immigrants follows a Border Patrol agent after turning themselves in near McAllen, Texas, March 25, 2014. Many migrants who come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador say their countries are filled with violence and are heading north to safety.
FILE A group of immigrants follows a Border Patrol agent after turning themselves in near McAllen, Texas, March 25, 2014. Many migrants who come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador say their countries are filled with violence and are heading north to safety. NYT

Some 25 years ago, as governor of California, I challenged the federal government to fix a broken immigration system that was costing my state and other border states billions of dollars each year in federally mandated educational, medical, and law enforcement costs.

I warned that if the federal government did not address illegal immigration, the problem would only get much worse and impact every state in the nation. I and other governors even sued the federal government to get them to take action. It did not take a Nostradamus to predict that continuing to ignore the problem would not make it go away.

The issue then and today was not, and should not be, about immigration, but about immigrating the right way – the legal way. I have historically supported continued legal immigration to the United States, as have most Americans.

And so we should: We are a nation of immigrants and of their children and grandchildren. Our openness and ability to assimilate people from all over the world are unique, and have made our nation richer and stronger.

After other governors, Democrats as well as Republicans, joined my attempts to get Washington to act, in June 1995 a bipartisan commission, appointed by Congress and headed by the respected former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, issued a report recommending reforms of the immigration system. It urged effective border security, just procedures for deportation, changes in “family reunification” to prevent chain migration, fair and workable employer sanctions, and other much-needed reforms.

The Jordan report made sense. Its reforms were realistic, fair and well-reasoned, and received thoughtful bipartisan support. President Bill Clinton announced that the Jordan proposals were “consistent with my own views” and a “roadmap for the Congress to consider.” But they received criticism from the left, and by 1997 The Boston Globe noted that he had taken no action to achieve its reforms.

Since the Jordan report, there has been far less action than required to secure our borders. Yes, Congress has authorized some money for a fence, but nothing like what is needed for the coordinated network of physical barriers, sensors, and adequate manpower that, for example, secure Israel against terrorists.

The responsibility for immigration policy and administration is clearly federal as a matter of law. The failure in Washington to reform policy and enforce the law has been bipartisan, sadly.

It rests clearly on the shoulders of Congress and past presidents who have not taken adequate measures to protect our nation’s borders, or to reform flawed admission policies, or to return immigration to the humane procedure it was intended to be in order to ensure order and fairness to all who come legally to America – who come to become naturalized citizens, to be assimilated and ready to enjoy the rights and to accept the duties of a proud American citizen.

The Democrat Henry Cisneros, a former Mayor of San Antonio and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has conceded with admirable logic and candor that taxpayer-paid federally mandated services are “a magnet” to illegal immigrants.

So too are the loudly self-declared sanctuary city and state obstructionists, and demands by dystopian activists to abolish ICE and the Department of Homeland Security. These just worsen an already chaotic situation. They are at best misguided, and at worst truly cynical efforts to defame obviously needed protective agencies and personnel as racist.

Tragically many illegal immigrants die trying to come to the freedom and opportunity of the United States. They are subjected to brutality by smugglers and human traffickers who prey on them and their children – not just at the border but every step of the way, and even after their illegal entry.

Do I sympathize with illegal immigrants struggling to come to a better life for their families in America? Of course I do. But America simply cannot permit unregulated immigration and open borders.

There are millions more worldwide whose lives in their home countries make them eager to come here illegally. No nation can survive ongoing massive illegal immigration and continue to ensure the economic security and public safety of its citizens. Those seeking to come to the United States can and must do it the right way, like the waves of legal immigrants who were our forebears.

Congress is inexcusably late in acting to cure its decades of neglect. The costs to our citizens and nation, to those who have legally immigrated – and even those attempting to come here illegally – are simply too high. If Congress does not act, it’s time to elect members who will.

Pete Wilson is a former United States senator, a former governor of California and a participant in The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Influencers series. Reach him at and find the series (with more on immigration Monday) at