Comprehensive Immigration Reform

By Director of Policy and Legislation Gabriela Lemus, Ph.D.

In the tri-state area of Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC "El Comercio" the weekly Spanish language newspaper headlined its front cover with the statement, "gan-la tolerancia" (tolerance won.) The heated anti-immigrant campaign for governor run by Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore was defeated by Democrat Tim Kaine's more moderate and conciliatory attitude. But, what was this an instance of? Was it merely partisan politics or is there more on the table than meets the eye? Why did Jerry Kilgore run a campaign targeting the undocumented - the weakest and most vulnerable of Virginia-state residents?

The issue of immigration has always prompted contentious attitudes. Since our nation's inception xenophobic attitudes have cyclically risen and abated depending in large part on the state of the economy, the ability of the newest-arrived immigrant community to integrate itself, demographic growth and general fear of "outsiders." However, this latest Virginia gubernatorial election presented a contest of attitudes towards the role that immigrants play in our society.

In 2005, there were more than 500 pieces of legislation related to immigrants presented in state legislatures across the country. The legislation ranged from using local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law, to denying driver's licenses to the undocumented, to more favorable legislation allowing undocumented young people to attend university while paying in-state tuition. Immigration is being discussed in a wide array of institutions: from the National League of Cities and the National Conference of State Legislators to the Rotary Club and other local community forums.

At the national level, there are several overarching bills in the Senate including the McCain-Kennedy bill; the Cornyn-Kyl bill; and the Hagel bill, among others. There are also specialty bills such as the DREAM Act and AgJobs - both target specific sectors of the immigrant community, college-aged students and farm workers. In the past few months, Congress has also witnessed a rash of enforcement or border security bills that focus only on increasing the presence of law enforcement on the Southern border of the United States and the use of local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law.

Given the current state of the U.S. economy, its national security interests and the slow growth of its future work force, it is imperative that Congress take up comprehensive immigration reform. The bill sponsored by Senators, McCain Kennedy and Brownback - the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 - though not perfect, comes closest to the need of satisfactorily addressing these concerns. It provides a realistic approach to national security. It addresses the need for realistic reform with regards to the undocumented already in the United States. It protects workers and pay-rates, while reuniting families and restoring healthy migration patterns, and ensuring a timely, transparent and secure process for future flows.

Today, we have reached a critical juncture where the need for political will, leadership and action has reached an apex or there is a risk that the tide against immigrants conflagrates into a protracted battleground. As the frustration mounts for the government to "do" something about undocumented immigration and securing the borders, civilian posses such as the Citizens Patrol and the Minuteman Project have organized themselves and purport to volunteer their time and energy to patrolling the border to prevent the tidal wave of undocumented immigrants from crossing into the United States. Although President George W. Bush has opposed these individuals characterizing them as "vigilantes" they pose a serious challenge to the nation-s ability to support comprehensive immigration reform.

Several recent polls have demonstrated that the American people are not averse to allowing people to stay and work in the United States as long as they obey the laws, learn English and integrate into the system. Yet, there is also a darker, meaner side as reflected by the negative campaign run by Jerry Kilgore in Virginia or highlighted nightly by such pundits as Lou Dobbs on CNN "illegals" abuse our tax system, hurt our economy, ruin the environment and create rampant crime.

In the midst of these arguments are the businesses that require workers in order to function and to grow, the workers and their families. Foreign workers are a growing presence in the United States and hold an ever growing percentage of the jobs in this country. As of 2004, one in seven workers is foreign-born compared to the 1990s when one in ten workers was born abroad. U.S. workers are retiring in ever significant numbers and foreign workers are needed to fill their jobs. According to an October 2005 study by the Congressional Budget Office, more than 21 million workers were born abroad and almost 40 percent of those were born in Mexico and Central America and 25 percent were born in Asia.

Many of our foreign-born workers are undocumented - depending on who is counting, the estimates range from 8 to 11 million. Of these, a large number are commonly referred to as essential workers who take jobs such as digging ditches, building homes, cleaning houses, and feeding the country. While this segment of the workforce has grown, we are also witnessing a decline in the growth rate of the U.S. workforce. Between 2002 and 2012, the labor force aged 25-34 is projected to increase by only 3 million. Additionally, workers from the baby-boom aged 55 and older will increase by 18 million between 2002 and 2012 growing from 14.3 percent to 19.1 percent of the workforce. Retirees are expected to number around 77 million in 2010 and by 2030, one in every five Americans will be a senior citizen.

Yet, the focus of many legislators seems to revolve around law enforcement and preventing these essential workers quite simply from working. The costs of patrolling and enforcing federal immigration law has increased more than five times since 1992 growing from $300 per border arrest to $1,700 in 2002. Assuming that 20 percent of immigrants were to leave voluntarily, it would cost around $41 billion per year to deport the rest - that is more than the entire budget for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

By doing nothing aggressively humanistic or economically innovative regarding the immigration challenge means that tax payers are being asked to spend more money with less satisfactory results. The borders are no more secure now than they were a decade ago. The need for essential workers continues to grow at a steady pace. It is very difficult for workers to obtain the appropriate documentation because of the large lines, expense and bureaucratic demands of the process, which in turn grows the deficit of needed workers who resort to risking their lives with human traffickers across a dangerous border.

Politically, government officials are equally trapped in a series of election cycles whereby only in years when there are no elections is it opportune to engage in the immigration debate. In translation this means that the cycle of discussion becomes shorter and shorter for each individual bill. In the meantime, the media and anti-immigrant groups portray the immigrant community as illegal and dangerous to our nation's safety, meshing the issues of immigration and terrorism while calling for a closing down of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Building a wall across the southern border that is high enough and wide enough to prevent border crossings sends a dangerous message to our second largest trading partner, to our future trading partners, and to the U.S. regime of allies and friends in Latin America. It says that the United States does not trust you, does not want you, and does not need you. Such a decision would be myopic and bad for national security, public safety and the economy.

U.S. enemies will view such a situation as an opportunity to prey upon the negative feelings shutting down the border will engender in Latin America. Drug traffickers, human traffickers and members of organized crime organizations will view it as an opportunity to exploit and entrench themselves into societies already desperate for economic improvement. Businesses will be harmed because of the ensuing and inevitable increase in costs and challenges of moving their goods across the U.S.-Mexico border - a situation anathema to the goals of free trade. Economic growth in the United States will stagnate because of the inevitable slowdown in the growth of the native work-force as the baby-boom generation reaches retirement age and the lack of a market-sensitive and workable essential workers program that provides a steady, reliable work-force.

A road-map is on the table. It is up to us to follow it.

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