Former Gov. Tom Ridge: Americans deserve secure borders and a productive economy | Opinion

Daon is fortunate to have the talents of Tom Ridge on our board. The former Pennsylvania governor had the vision to bring biometrics to what was then the brand new U.S. Department of Homeland Security as part of an innovative approach to securing airports, seaports and other border crossings. Check out Gov. Ridge's new opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Susan Walsh / Associated Press

As Americans watch the government shutdown drag into yet another week, we can’t help but feel a combination of outrage and frustration that good people who work for our nation have been forced to rely on charity for basic necessities and bank loans to cover rent. The sad reality that these federal workers are caught in the crossfire of political and personal differences has understandably grabbed our attention.

But lost among the headlines of the shutdown and border wall debate is the inescapable reality that America does not have a 21st-century immigration policy. Much of our country’s intellectual foundation and economic growth has been dependent on immigrants who brought their many talents to our shores. In spite of our interdependent, interconnected world, it is a sad irony that we are less comfortable with that reality today.

We will be unable to establish a modern and sustainable immigration policy if we can’t find a way to deal with illegal immigration at the southern border. It is time to govern.

Both parties hold strong views on key components of immigration policy. Hidden behind pointed rhetoric and outsized political posturing is the critical need to fashion a modern immigration policy that secures the southern border, shows compassion to Dreamers, builds a foreign worker entry/exit system, provides H-2B visa cap relief, and resolves the fate of those who, while entering illegally, have been lawful and contributing residents. It is time to govern.

Physical barriers and smart technology are needed to secure the border. Our dedicated CBP and ICE agents should focus their efforts on the predators, drug runners, and thieves who are here illegally. We can find a way to legitimize the presence of those who broke our laws to get here, but who have been law abiding ever since. That does not mean guaranteeing a path to citizenship. It is both unrealistic and outrageous to conclude that all those who have entered illegally must be identified and deported before we can have complete reform. It is a poor excuse for inaction.

Central to any comprehensive immigration reform includes the expansion of our guest-worker visa programs. We have the technical capability to build a biometric-based entry-exit system through which employers and prospective employees can meet both the needs of business and the desired foreigners to work in the U.S. We should not assume that all those seeking employment here would renounce their citizenship for ours. Strong penalties imposed on those who hire outside this legal system would itself reduce the potential flow of illegal employees.

American businesses use the H-2B visa program to support seasonal employers. Every year their needs exceed the annual worker quota Congress has set. The 66,000 H-2B worker visas are consistently too low. The quota can and should be raised and preference should be given to those employers who have legally used the program in the past to keep their doors open.

Exploiting immigration policy differences to secure political advantages for 2020 is fraught with peril. Those differences, which at times seem as personal as they are philosophical, undermine our national security and economic interest. They also further undermine voters’ confidence in our institutions of government and their ability and responsibility to address and solve problems.

Elections are a means to an important end. Victories impose a duty to govern. Both parties have used certain elements of the immigration debate for political leverage. Nevertheless their basic concerns are not contradictory or irreconcilable and should be included as critical elements in a total reform effort.

Americans are compassionate and deserve secure borders and a productive economy. Wrap these tenets around broader immigration reform and everyone wins. Good policy is always good politics. A victory championed at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and credited to both parties would be historic, most welcome, and about time. Both sides have merit, so let’s do the hard work of resolving our differences to provide comprehensive immigration reform. It is time to govern.

Tom Ridge was the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and first U.S. secretary of homeland security. Today he is chairman of Ridge Global in Washington.