Villaraigosa: Comprehensive immigration reform is not amnesty

Immigration reform will be a priority in Washington, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is hoping to shape the conversation. This week, Villaraigosa announced a six-point plan, which includes a path to citizenship, family reunification, and smarter border enforcement.

The California Democrat recently spoke with U.S. News about the urgency of immigration reform and the details of his proposal. Excerpts:

Why is comprehensive immigration reform imperative now?

We have had a broken immigration system for more than two decades. We have 11 million people who are here who are undocumented, who have 5 million citizen-children, and almost 2 million “Dreamers” [undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children] who know no other country but this one.

What about border enforcement?

We spend more on border enforcement than we do for the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], and the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] combined, by more than 25 percent. So, we can’t have a piecemeal approach. The enforcement-only approach that you hear from some is something we’ve been doing, and it hasn’t worked.

What are the economic incentives for immigration reform?

There’s a $1.5 trillion economic impact, according to the Center for American Progress. The Dreamers alone, it’s estimated, will have a $329 billion impact over a 10-year period. And the reason is this: You’re bringing these people from out of the dark and into the light. What happens when you do that? You encourage them to get an education, you encourage them to improve their job skills. They’re encouraged to seek better jobs. They contribute more to our Social Security system. President Obama has said that we should attach a green card to the diploma of people who come here getting bachelor’s degrees, particularly in science and math. [Also, H-1B] visas need to be expanded, and we need to make sure that we have a program that makes sense in the agricultural sector.

A pathway to citizenship has been called amnesty by opponents. Is it?

A temporary status, second-class citizenship, cannot and will not be a comprehensive immigration policy. It’s not amnesty, it’s earned. You have to prove you’ve been here for a period of time. You have to pay your back taxes. You have to get at the end of the line. You have to learn English and have some knowledge of the country if you want to be a citizen. What’s the alternative? The [mass] deportation of 11 million people? No country in the world has ever deported 11 million people, and this great country certainly won’t be the first.

Do you expect cooperation from the GOP?

I recently had an opportunity to have a very short conversation with Sen. [John] McCain. He seems to be very optimistic about the chances of passing comprehensive reform. I’m working with a group of eight senators, bipartisan, who realize the time is now, and my hope is that both parties will work together to fix this broken immigration system.

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