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Immigration policy expert gives U.S. immigration system an F

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For months, Republican governors in some border states have been sending busloads or planeloads of migrants to places like Washington, New York, Martha's Vineyard. It's a tactic to gain attention for what they call a crisis at the border, a crisis they blame on President Biden. Democrats, meanwhile, blame what they call obstructionist Republicans in Congress for the lack of progress on immigration reform. One thing almost everyone agrees on is the system needs to be fixed. Here to talk about how we got to this point is Jorge Loweree managing director of programs at the American Immigration Council. That's a nonpartisan group that seeks to solve immigration problems. Jorge Loweree, hey there. Welcome.

JORGE LOWEREE: Hi, Mary Louise. I'm happy to be here.

KELLY: If you were handing out a letter grade, how broken is the American immigration system? What would you give it?

LOWEREE: I would absolutely give it an F, without a doubt. Our current system was last updated in the 1980s. Just take a moment to think of how much has changed in that span of time. It was created in a different era to meet very different needs, not responsive to our interests as a nation, certainly not responsive to the needs of immigrant families and individuals today. It's something that we should have updated a long time ago and certainly should prioritize today.

KELLY: Give me an example of how you see that playing out, of a 20th-century system that is just not adequate to a 21st-century challenge.

LOWEREE: Right. So one of the things that I hear most often in my work from people is that they are supportive of immigrants and immigration. They just want people to come here the, quote-unquote, "right way." One of the things that people don't realize, though, is that the system that we currently have shuts the vast majority of people out. And even for the small population of people who qualify to come here, it can often take them years, a decade, even multiple decades as well. How can we reasonably be surprised that we have such a high level of irregular migration and such a large population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. when we have effectively shut the door to the world?

KELLY: Let's focus on one slice of this where you see promise. This year, the government has allowed private citizens to sponsor people from Ukraine who want to come here to escape war in their own country. And I gather you think this is an idea that has potential that could be expanded to people from other countries?

LOWEREE: That's right. So the program that you're referring to is called Uniting for Ukraine. It's a novel idea that has been successful to date, and it reduces the sort of responsibility of the federal government in a very effective way.

KELLY: Although would expanding it undermine what makes it work? I guess you could imagine this turning into another immigration bureaucracy with long wait times if it becomes much bigger and many more people are given access to something like that.

LOWEREE: That's a very valid concern, but one of the things that has been particularly effective about this program is that much of the involvement of processing individual cases has been automated. There is still rigorous vetting that takes place. That hasn't changed. But the handling of that paperwork that happens behind the scenes, the processing times have been extraordinarily fast.

KELLY: A year from now, when you and I return and check in on this conversation, is your sense we will have made progress? Is your sense we will have been in a better place in terms of the situation at the southern border and the politics surrounding it?

LOWEREE: When it comes to immigration issues, I'm ever the optimist, and I certainly think there is the possibility that we could improve our system and also improve the politics, not necessarily in that order. But we need a greater level of leadership from our champions in Washington to get to a much better place on these issues.

KELLY: Jorge Loweree, managing director of programs at the American Immigration Council, thank you.

LOWEREE: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Kathryn Fox