Let’s Build a Common American Culture

The United States Senate has moved us one giant step closer to fixing our immigration system. After weeks of debate, dozens of proposed amendments, and scores of votes, the Senate last Thursday passed the first comprehensive immigration bill in nearly a quarter century. The changes to immigration law that will follow have major implications for the entire nation. While the House and Senate still must come together to work out the final details of a bill for the President to sign, the Senate’s vote brings the most important elements of a new immigration system into focus. America’s revised immigration system will do far more to secure our borders, meet our economy’s labor needs, support a common culture, and uphold our standards of compassion.

Most importantly, the new immigration bill begins the process of constructing a combination of actual and virtual fences across every inch of our 1,951-mile-long border with Mexico. In places that need them, the Senate bill will build 370 miles of new physical barriers. In other locations, the bill will fund a variety of sensors and electronic means to detect intrusion. The bill also supports new efforts to provide Customs and Border Protection with additional personnel, facilities, and aircraft. While border security ranks first among our concerns, sensible immigration cannot stop there. Many men and women who once violated immigration laws have spent years living in the United States, working, paying taxes, and raising families.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that over 11 million illegal immigrants live in the United States. California has the most at 2.5 million. Many illegal immigrants now have children who have entirely immersed themselves in American culture. Forcing long-term illegal residents to quit jobs, abandon families, and leave the country just isn’t feasible. Since they’ve violated our laws, however, long-term illegal residents should have to pay fines, learn to speak English fluently, master the basics of American government, show that they lack serious criminal records, and get in line behind those who have followed the rules. Only then should we even entertain their applications for citizenship. Finally, some people – those who came here illegally in the last two years – will simply have to return home and apply through the regular, legal channels if they ever hope to work in America. There will be no way they can find work otherwise. Those who come to the U.S. in the future will have to take advantage of existing visa categories or new guest-worker programs. Our revised immigration system will also take steps to uphold America’s common culture.

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For the first time in history, the Senate bill establishes English as our national language. To further underline the importance of our common culture, the bill would also tighten the standards for the tests on American history and civics that everyone seeking citizenship will have to pass. Finally, the new immigration proposals show compassion for those who come to our borders. The overwhelming majority of people who violate our immigration laws simply wish to work hard and raise their families. They do need to pay restitution, but we can’t treat them all like common criminals. The bill, indeed, contains provisions to crack down on serious criminals: the ultra-violent MS-13 street gang that menaces Latino communities throughout our nation. Another provision will require Customs and Border Protection to develop a national strategy for counting and reducing deaths along the borders. We have a moral obligation to protect the life of every person who sets foot on American soil.

To help alleviate the economic conditions in Mexico that drive much illegal immigration, finally, another provision will require the government to focus our foreign aid toward it. The new immigration law will help bring over 10% of the city’s population out of the shadows, enormously enhance our security, bring our economy the labor it needs, and teach the newest Americans essential elements of American culture, including reinforcing the need to speak English. The new immigration bill, in short, will honor the rule of law, make all of us safer, and uphold America’s longstanding heritage as a nation of immigrants.

Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) is a writer, pilot, marathon runner, and medical doctor. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994, the first time since 1928 that a practicing physician was elected to the Senate. He serves on the Health-Education-Labor-Pensions committee.