We’ve been hearing for decades that our immigration system is broken. I’ve been up close and personal with the system in recent years and wanted to share some thoughts.

My son served in the Peace Corps for two years in Ukraine. During that time, he met and married a wonderful woman. He flew back to the U.S. in November 2019. It took 13 months for her to join him. The process was slow and, since the Peace Corps is mostly a volunteer commitment, my son couldn’t show the income history it would take to provide for two people. In our case, we sponsored our daughter-in-law. If we hadn’t, the process would have probably stretched out for months or years. Compare that to the immigrants crashing the southern border and it’s easy to see the contrast between legally entering our country and illegally entering the country.

Before I lived in a community that included a large number of illegal immigrants, my thoughts were mostly in support of those families coming across the border who sought a better life for their families. How could we not want to provide an opportunity for everyone willing to make a dangerous journey with family and the belongings they could carry?

By letting people cross illegally, they too often become prey for unscrupulous employers and slumlords. I saw it. What I personally witnessed was appalling, inhumane, and directly related to us allowing illegal immigration.

Many field workers were subcontracted by a contractor who had the actual business relationship with farmers. Many instances of unsafe working conditions went unreported out of fear of revealing residency status. There were accidents where illegal immigrants were badly hurt. In one case, three immigrants were injured, two refused treatment and later died from internal injuries. In other cases, workers injured in the field were simply dropped off at the local hospital emergency room door. Having a green card or a temporary work permit makes this kind of abuse less likely and allows it to be reported more often.

There are few employment protections. They live at the mercy of their contractor for the most part. I could never get a straight answer to how they were paid or how much they were paid. In some cases, they were paid cash; in other cases they were paid by check. In the latter cases they would generally go to a check cashing service that charged a fee, and many would wire money back to family members in other countries, which also required fees.

Then there is housing. It’s hard to explain how bad it was. Slumlords treated immigrant families like sub-humans. They required upfront cash payment for applications, knowing the home/unit was already rented. Homes were unsafe, without working fire detectors, some with holes in the floor as large as 12 to 18 inches. There were rentals with beehives in the walls. I went to one home that had raw sewage running through a small trench in the backyard dug by the renter because the pipes had backed up. Kids were in the backyard jumping over the trench. Since my time in the community, the largest slumlord was prosecuted for his evil deeds, but he was one of many.

Schools struggled to cope with non-English speaking students and parents. In some cases, students were segregated by language. In one school I visited, third-grade English and Spanish language students were put in one class and both languages were taught. It was incredible to hear students practicing their language skills with each other. It was a smart way to integrate language and culture. That same school taught parents English as a second language. It benefits everyone when we have a common language.

This time around, we need to fire this Congress if they won’t or don’t pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. It should provide resources that secure our borders. It should provide streamlined access for asylum seekers and for temporary workers who provide the much-needed agriculture workforce. Dreamers and others already in living in the U.S. should be provided with a clear path to citizenship that is affordable and well-defined with responsibilities and timelines. If the responsibilities and timelines are not met, illegal immigrants should be expelled and not given the opportunity to immediately re-apply. Illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes (crimes of moral turpitude) should serve their sentence and then be expelled without an opportunity to reenter.

Securing the border is important and providing opportunities for families to thrive as Americans is just as important. For too long, we have played along with the game-makers in Washington. They have turned illegal immigrants into pawns and victims. For the most part, I still believe that the majority of illegal crossings come from good people who see a better opportunity for them and their family in the U.S. Let’s give them the best shot at the American dream and that starts with legal status and a quick path to citizenship.

Rickman is publisher of the Leader-Telegram.