Why Now for Immigration Reform? It's the Economy, Stupid!

In this moment of great anxiety, we are afraid of losing our jobs, our health care, our homes.  There are some today who would blame immigrants for our economic troubles.  They suggest that if we only rid ourselves of undocumented immigrants, there would be jobs for all natives who want them. 

Let’s set aside the question of whether the laid-off Wall Street broker would want to move to California to pick broccoli.  A more relevant issue is that our economic recovery is hampered by an immigration system that forces five percent of our workforce into the shadows.

Undocumented immigrants, who out of fear of discovery are less likely to stand up for their rights on the job, are easy prey for unscrupulous employers.  These employers set the terms of pay and conditions without regard to our labor laws, thereby creating an economic trap door that serves as the entrance to an underground economy that ultimately drives down wages for all workers, that cheats the taxpayer, and that makes survival more tenuous for the employer trying to play by the rules.

It is increasingly clear that reforming our immigration system is a key component of fixing our economy.  It is an insult to the American worker to think he or she should have to compete for the $7/hour job when their training, experience and ingenuity has brought wages of $27/hour.  By bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, we close the trap door and protect American workers.  Our economic future must be one of good jobs, not cheap labor.

An intelligent solution to our immigration mess requires undocumented immigrants to come forward and register with the government.  In return for legal permission to work, they are expected to learn English, pay their taxes, and pay appropriate fines.  Only then will they embark on the long road to a green card and eventual citizenship. 

The sensible approach to the immigration problem rewards work, and results in a system that people will move through, not around.  It results in more people working on the books and more families making more money and paying more taxes. 

With the trap door closed, the floor will be more solid under the native worker as well—decades of research has shown that legalization of undocumented immigrants raises wages for all workers.

Realistic immigration reform must include intelligent border and interior law enforcement strategies that will carefully scrutinize employers who hire outside the system.  By taking undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, it will be easier to shine a light on employers who prefer to operate in those shadows. 

To continue the immigration strategy of the Bush Administration is an expensive proposition — by one estimate it will cost more than $200 billion to deport the undocumented—and it will result in the loss of the estimated $1.8 trillion in spending and $651 million in annual output of undocumented immigrants.  By comparison, the stimulus package passed in January was $789 billion.

Quite simply, we cannot afford to flush $2.5 trillion in annual spending and economic activity down the tubes of anti-immigrant hysteria.

Fortunately, this is a new day.  There is a spirit of seeking solutions that unite us.  We can achieve immigration reform for America—reform that will level the playing field for all working people, that will help the country get back on its feet economically, and that will restore integrity and trust to our nation’s process for determining who can enter our country.


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