Ideally, immigration reform would start with nativists getting down on their knees and begging for forgiveness. But it always exceeds a bigot’s imagination that he is one, so I would settle for legal reform alone.
Congress should open America’s borders, grant residency status to all foreigners who apply for it, and grant amnesty (residency) to immigrants who live here illegally now. If Congress wishes, it can attempt to screen immigrants for those that it reasonably suspects intend to harm Americans. This is probably beyond the capacity of the United States government, but the attempt may be politically inevitable.
A less good alternative to open borders, still better than the status quo, would be for Congress to pass a guest worker program that granted temporary resident status to any foreign worker able to find employment. This would allow in all foreigners capable of supporting themselves – those who would not be a burden to the welfare state. Congress could also increase the quotas for permanent resident and worker visas instead of eliminating them altogether.
A less good alternative to amnesty, would be to establish a “pathway to citizenship” that would provide permanent residence status to all illegal immigrants who first voluntarily paid a small fine and temporarily left the country. This is a worse alternative to amnesty because it pointlessly harasses immigrants – a bit like offering freedom to runaway slaves provided that they first briefly returned to their plantations. But it is better than the status quo. Immigrants could of course continue to live illegally in the United States, if they preferred.
What do we not need to do?
We do not need to extend welfare benefits – social security, welfare, public education, or public health care – to immigrants. If immigrants do not have a right to these things outside of our borders, then they need not have a right to them inside of it. It is a marginal improvement to grant immigrants permission to live in our country without welfare benefits. Obviously, illegal immigrants prefer living here without benefits, even illegally, to living in their native countries with them. We do not need to extend the right to vote to immigrants, though I am not convinced that we should not. If immigrants prefer disenfranchised membership in our own society to enfranchised life in the country of their birth, then we should let them have it.
Ultimately, the goal must be to make legal immigration easy, not hard. We should do this not merely because it increases American productivity, not merely because it will allow millions of foreigners to raise themselves out of poverty, but because it is right: it is their right.