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Old immigration laws no longer apply to current mess

It’s no secret, the American immigration policy is a tattered mess, even though there are thousands of laws on the books meant to address both legal and illegal immigration. The problem is almost all of them are outdated.

Take, for example, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. When passed, the law was designed to protect victims of sex trafficking. The idea was to protect minors from Central American countries here in the United States from traffickers (children from Mexico had to prove they were at risk of being trafficked in order to be granted the same exemption).

As the New York Times wrote:

The law required that they be turned over to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the agency was directed to place the minor “in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child” and to explore reuniting those children with family members.’

The law was designed to handle 6,000-8,000 minors per year. It’s now being applied to over 50,000 who have arrived this year from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Right now, the government’s hands are tied. The law spells out a specific process that must be followed, a process that involves court hearings. Sometimes those court hearings take two or three years to resolve because they were already overburdened before these more recent arrivals.

At best, President Barack Obama’s administration can speed up this process so it takes months instead of years to handle these cases. That’s not much of a solution.

Congress could also act by altering the 2008 law, but that seems unlikely given the current state of things in America’s legislative branch.

Until Congress acts the immigration story will continue to be about backlogs. That’s the word that sums up America’s immigration policy.

Here are some numbers to prove it:

In 2012 there were almost 315,000 immigration cases backlogged throughout the nation’s 59 immigration courts. In Houston six judges alone have to handle 6,000 cases. It’s an impossible workload that continues to grow every year.

Close to 900,000 immigrants are legally allowed to enter the US every year. Of those, 140,000 are given green cards granting them a permanent status that falls short of full citizenship. Sometimes the wait for a green card can take up to five years.

Three-quarters of a million green card holders become U.S. citizens every year. Mostly, in mass ceremonies. They often spend thousands of dollars each in both processing and lawyer fees while they navigate the long, convoluted process.

Of course, these problems are on top of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.

It’s clear almost the entire immigration system is backlogged and broken, hence all the calls for immigration reform.

But reform means different things to different people. There’s border-security-first reform. There are reformists wanting to crack down on illegal immigration. There are advocates for a pathway to citizenship. There are opponents of a pathway. There are supporters of allowing more legal immigration or guest worker programs and people who think reform means allowing more highly skilled immigrants into the country.

The umbrella of reform is like a huge camping tent and because of its size the will to enact any type of reform is impotent. So Congress sits on the sidelines while an urgent need of the nation expands into a five alarm blaze.

Meanwhile, backlogs continue to grow and more unaccompanied minors continue to arrive at American borders every day.

All the while, faith in the nation’s lawmakers crumbles. Perhaps they should read this quote from President John F. Kennedy who said, “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”

By that definition these lawmakers are living on shaky ground too close to the ledge. Here’s hoping we don’t fall.