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One night, along the Rio Grande, I stood in the underbrush with Border Control by my side. We were there to observe one of the more serious problems facing our country. I watched as persons swam across the river, illegally entering America.

On another occasion, I watched grown men from a new immigrant community cry as a woman who had been taken into sexual slavery by ISIS bravely recounted her story. And I know of numerous cases of families joyfully reunited because of the generosity of our legal immigration system. America gives the chance to heal.

We often hear the expression, “America is a country of immigrants.” But what does that mean? Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, our culture maintained that if a person came here, he or she was to be American first. Not a German first. Not an Italian first. Not a Korean first. Not a Mexican, Cuban, Russian or Argentine first. An American first. That meant learning the language—which still happens to be English—as a precondition for success. That also meant learning the mores of the country, grounded in our Constitution. That meant operating within the laws of our country. The government at times did not make this easy. Even so, the general consensus held for generation after generation: we are Americans—a unique identity, a new world. Most immigrants gratefully embraced the principle.

Lest we over-romanticize the past, a full accounting of those “good ole days” of immigration would have revealed industrial exploitation, warehousing of people in urban ghettos and disrespect of other cultures and lineages. Nevertheless, there was a sense that America’s promise was available to everyone, and that immigration served our deeper longings.

Today's immigration policy debate is significantly shaped by decisions made in Washington over thirty years ago. Back then, a deal was proposed: border security and interior enforcement in exchange for amnesty. We got one of three: amnesty. And, with amnesty, came more exploitation of illegal workers, more economic migration and a shift in our view of immigration. No longer our historic Ellis Island approach—swearing an oath, embracing our values—but a transactional one.

By some conservative estimates, we now have 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in America (40 percent overstayed a visa), including some who were brought here as children through no fault of their own. Under current executive policy, they are classified as Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Many Americans are sympathetic (as am I) to the challenges that these “DACA kids” face, including their fear of deportation back to a country that is foreign to them. Charity, however, cannot grow from chaos. Our priority should be resolving this dilemma in a way that is not only just, but also addresses the conditions that created the DACA problem in the first place—so it doesn’t happen again.

Having a properly ordered immigration system will allow us to retain our welcoming and generous American impulse. It is one reason why I recently cosponsored the Securing America’s Future Act. Among a number of reforms, it, first, secures the borders. Second, it changes certain immigration programs—such as ending the diversity visa lottery—that are unjust, unworkable or in need of significant improvement. And it adjusts “chain migration” while also stiffening the criteria for “asylum.” Third, it mandates that employers use E-Verify, so that corporate profiteering on the backs of illegal immigrants ends. Finally, it provides legal status for those under DACA, if they have not committed any non-status-related crime.

In addition, we continue to reorient our foreign aid around creating more stable conditions in dangerous, impoverished regions—including parts of Central America, Central Africa, and the Middle East—in order to empower persons to remain proximate to their ancestral homelands. Integrating this shift with fixing our immigration system aligns us with the ideals of security, fairness, and generosity that have long sustained America's unique selling proposition to the world.

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