Among the record-breaking numbers of people arriving at the U.S.- Mexico border, most are turning themselves in at ports of entry in order to seek asylum, a legal route, said Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center during a recent Rudman Center discussion.  (For a video of the event, visit here.  Quotes in this piece have been edited slightly for clarity.)

That fact – among others -- can get lost or distorted in the heat of political rhetoric.  Despite widespread agreement that the immigration system is in need of reform, efforts to fix the system continue to fall prey to political divisions. 

About 5 % of asylum seekers are unaccompanied minors who have walked thousands of miles from Central America, said Lina Shayo of Mesa Law PLLC. “It is a horrific journey," she said. "When people are making such difficult decisions to come, you know that what is pushing them out of their country, or out of their home, is so severe that they will do anything to come.”

Also often misunderstood are the economics of immigration. In fact, immigration is a vital part of a healthy economy, said Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition.

“What makes for economic growth is a growing workforce and increased productivity of that workforce. Immigration can help with both,” he said. “The more workers you have, the greater chance you have of having a productive economy.  In this country, we have a workforce growth problem because of changing demographics. The baby boomer generation is aging. Workforce growth is actually much, much slower and is projected to be much, much slower in the future than it has been in the past.”  

Immigration discussion at the Rudman Center

Theresa Cardinal Brown, the Bipartisan Policy Center; Laura Knoy, interim director of the Rudman Center; Lina Shayo, Mesa Law PLLC;  Robert Bixby, the Concord Coalition. 

Fears among some Americans that immigrants will compete for their jobs and depress wages are unfounded, said Brown.

“That tends to result from zero-sum thinking: that there's a set number of jobs in the economy, and if we have more people looking for those jobs, wages will go down and there is more competition for me,” she said. “Almost all labor economists who look at this say that's not the case. Immigrants, by and large, are complementary to the U.S. domestic workforce. Immigrants are more likely to compete with other immigrants than they are with native-born workers in the economy.” 

When it comes to wages, she said:  “Just look at this most recent period when we have seen big increases in the number of immigrants coming in, and yet we’ve had the highest wage growth at the lower end of the skill spectrum than we have seen in the last 15 years.”  

In terms of the costs of immigration, Shayo said, the U.S. spends a lot of money on detention. “If we think that people coming into the United States in an irregular way that's breaking the law, then we tend to detain those people. And we spend a ton of money on detention. And in fact, the law is written in a way that requires people to be detained. But we could spend more money on adjudication.” 

Brown said the adjudicative process, which includes asylum officers and immigration courts, is now overwhelmed.  

“if an asylum officer can't hear your case right there at the border, then you're released into the country to go to an immigration court and wait for an immigration judge to hear your case," she said.  "And depending on where in the country you are, that could be six to eight years.”

There are 3 million cases pending in immigration courts across the country, a record high, Brown said, amounting to about 4,000 cases per immigration judge.  

”It’s complicated even if you do it the right way,” Shayo said. “The system is designed to keep people out of the United States. Other countries have a point system, for example.  We don't have that. In order to be in the United States, you need a sponsor; you need a family member; you need an employer; you need a horrible story of persecution; you need something to allow you to be in the United States.”

U.S. citizens petitioning to bring relatives here can also wait years for family reunification.

“If I am a US citizen and my brother lives in Mexico, and I want to petition for him to come, it’s more than 20 years for that person to get a green card and come into the United States. About 1 million people die just waiting for the chance to come.”

For those who do get here, the wait to work can also be long. “People want to work,” Shayo said. “This process, because it's so long, because it's so complicated, really dehumanizes people.  Giving someone their agency back, giving someone the ability to work and support themselves and their families -- more than just the economic benefits -- it gives people back their humanity.”