The high personal and economic cost of our broken immigration system

While the political winds seem to be propelling the first comprehensive immigration reform in more than a quarter-century, every day our broken immigration system takes a cruel and little-noticed toll on countless hardworking, law-abiding individuals and their families. On any given day, approximately 34,000 immigrants are behind bars and more than 1,000 are deported — often for minor, technical violations of laws that are too byzantine for all but the most seasoned immigration lawyers to understand.

A case in point is Bing Li, a 52-year-old Chinese journalist and photographer for Asian American Broadcasting who had been living and working in Maryland since 2000 until he was suddenly and unexpectedly arrested in his Gaithersburg home two months ago in front of his wife and teenage daughter.

Mr. Li, who had a valid work permit, was handcuffed and taken to a Virginia detention facility because he left the United States on Dec. 19 to visit his mother, who was dying of lung cancer in Nanjing, China. Mr. Li went through all the proper channels before his trip, obtaining the parole travel document from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that he was told was necessary to temporarily leave the country. Unbeknownst to him, his petition for legal residency was officially denied the very day he departed, thus invalidating his travel document. The denial also exposes him to the possibility of removal proceedings. (When Mr. Li returned to the United States from China on New Year's Day, he was admitted by ICE — which was perhaps unaware of the denial of his residency petition — and issued an entry card that permitted one year of legal status.)

Over the nearly 13 years he has been in Maryland, Mr. Li has covered events ranging from the 2004 presidential election to choral concerts at the high school where his daughter is in a highly competitive international baccalaureate program. He was originally admitted on a B-1 tourist visa, had applied for a green card in 2007, and has paid federal and state taxes throughout his time in America. He had worked in the country for five years before he was able to send for his wife and daughter to join him, in 2005.

Since being incarcerated, Mr. Li has been allowed only 45 minutes a week to visit with his family by videoconference. His daughter, Jessica, said that he is a "strong man who doesn't like to complain, but my mom and I could see a lot of sadness and pain in his eyes." Last month, Mr. Li's mother died; he had not been allowed to call her from jail during the last weeks of her life.

The prosecution in Mr. Li's case contends that he is "a newly arrived alien," making him ineligible even for release on bond. At this point, the only options are to pursue a long, drawn-out legal challenge during which time Mr. Li will remain detained, or for Mr. Li to "self-deport," returning to a life of probable poverty in China because jobs would likely be hard to come by for a former advocate for greater political rights who is less than eight years shy of the country's mandatory retirement age. If Mr. Li leaves the country, his wife would have to accompany him, leaving his daughter an "orphan" — legally able to stay in the United States but forced to either live alone in their Maryland house or with friends.

Although there are certainly reasons to control the flow of immigrants to the United States and to punish those who commit crimes, much "immigration enforcement" creates unnecessary family tragedies and costs the nation dearly. In addition to lost productivity, wages and taxes from legal immigrant workers, it costs nearly $2 billion a year to put nearly 430,000 immigrants like Mr. Li behind bars, according to the Detention Watch Network. And this is just a fraction of the $18 billion a year spent on all immigration enforcement — a total that is greater than what is spent on the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and all other federal law-enforcement agencies combined.

At a time when some nations, like Canada and Australia, are more welcoming to immigrants, particularly skilled workers like Mr. Li, the principal effects of America's current immigration policies are to hurt families and hurt the nation's economy. Recently, a conservative think tank, the American Action Forum, estimated that immigration reform that would enable more people like Mr. Li to contribute to the U.S. economy could boost gross domestic product by 1 percentage point a year, producing tax revenue that could reduce federal deficits by $2.5 trillion over a decade.

President Barack Obama has made immigration reform a signature issue, and a growing number of Republicans, buffeted by last year's election defeat, support reform — as do the business community, human-rights advocates and most Americans. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 54 percent of Americans back reforms that would offer undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, a number that rises to 76 percent if the "pathway" included paying a fine and back taxes and submitting to a background check.

A bipartisan group of eight senators is seeking a super-majority in the Senate for an immigration reform bill, but hope for passage of such legislation is dimmed by those who are adamantly opposed to such a pathway to citizenship, denouncing it as "amnesty."

As Congress considers more humane and economically sound immigration policies, we need to call a halt to the criminalization of immigrants like Mr. Li. Imprisoning and possibly deporting such people destroys families and clouds America's historic claim to be a beacon of liberty and opportunity.

Andrew L. Yarrow is a public policy professional, historian and author. His most recent book is "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century." He can be reached at

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