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Daniel Altschuler

Daniel Altschuler

Posted: March 4, 2011 10:02 AM

The last twelve months have been dispiriting for advocates of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). First CIR didn't make it onto the 2010 legislative agenda. Then Arizona passed SB 1070, and other states expressed interest in following suit. Then the DREAM Act failed to pass the Senate and the new House of Representatives leadership changed direction in terms of that body's approach to immigration reform. And, through it all, the national conversation kept getting nastier, going as far as proposals to repeal the 14th Amendment's birthright citizenship provision.

So, amidst all the gloom, are there any glimmers of hope for pro-immigrant advocates?

Well, the climate still looks very unfriendly, but a recent push from large investors could augur well for the years ahead.

Last week, a group of institutional investors--led by the Comptroller of the City of New York, John Liu, and senior management from Mercy Investment Services, Inc., Boston Common Asset Management, Walden Asset Management (disclosure: I've collaborated with Walden on other shareholder initiatives), and the Unitarian Universalist Association--sent letters to roughly 150 CEOs of large corporations asking them to publicly express their support for sensible immigration reform. The signatories of the letter are no fringe activists--they manage assets in excess of $145 billion, and they have a fiduciary responsibility to manage that money responsibly.

This may make you wonder: why should investors and corporations support immigration reform? The answer comes from the CEOs of American corporations who have signed onto Mayor Mike Bloomberg's Partnership for a New American Economy. The Partnership is an alliance of over 150 business CEOs--leading companies like Microsoft, News Corporation, Disney, JP Morgan, Xerox, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers--and mayors who advocate CIR for several reasons, including:

1. Immigrant innovation--from 1995-2005, over 25 percent of American engineering and technology companies had at least one immigrant founder.

2. Young immigrant talent--educating high-skilled immigrants without creating pathways for them to stay and work here is counter-productive. As the American population ages, we should be embracing talented young people, not showing them the door.

3. Complementary immigrant labor--immigrants mostly do labor that is complementary, rather than substitutive of, non-immigrant labor. Consider agriculture, where each on-farm job (such as picking fruit, mostly done by immigrants) supports over three off-farm jobs, such as processing, shipping, and sales.

In short, contrary to the scare stories coming out of the Republican House leadership, like Elton Gallegly (R-CA), Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Steve King (R-IA), immigration helps the economy, and companies rely on immigrant innovation, talent and complementary labor to thrive.

This is why Bloomberg's Partnership and other initiatives--including businesses affiliated with the Americas Society and Council of the Americas' Hispanic Integration Hub--eschew efforts to villify immigrants and instead embrace initiatives for immigrant integration. Our economy needs immigrants' labor and hard work, and efforts like expanding English-language education facilitate economic participation, both as employees and customers. In the words of Brent Warren, VP of Banner Bank of Oregon, "it just makes good business sense."

Moreover, business leaders in the Partnership recognize the financial impossibility of deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants and the massive economic benefit of instead offering them a pathway to citizenship. Already, undocumented people contribute to our economy with their labor, their consumption, and the taxes and Social Security they pay. Bringing workers out of the shadows would make things easier for employers and immigrant employees alike and expand immigrants' economic contributions.

With any luck, last week's letter from institutional investors will help convince more CEOs to publicly acknowledge these simple truths and add more weight to the pro-immigrant side of the debate.

The other interesting piece of this story is the role of religious institutions. Many may recall that religious institutions and investors have been critical in advocating progressive political change--such as getting large corporations to divest from Apartheid South Africa. On immigration, faith leaders can play a similarly positive role.

Last year, a group of Christian Conservatives garnered attention for joining the CIR effort under the mantle of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. And progressive church leaders have been working on immigration for decades--from providing services on the front lines to participating in direct action and advocacy efforts.

But the novelty of this recent effort by over 60 institutional investors, the bulk of which are faith-based, is that it could portend increased collaboration on immigration policy between business and religious groups across the political spectrum.

Of course, none of this will undo the restrictionist rhetoric coming forth from groups like the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). FAIR and others on this side of the debate have earned the title "hate group" from the Southern Poverty Law Center due to links to a eugenics foundation and nativists warning of a Latino invasion. These radical voices are not going anywhere. Nor will such a business-religion alliance prompt an about-face from powerful restrictionists in Congress.

But the involvement of faith-based investors in immigration augurs well for pro-immigrant advocates who need to do better at convincing the American public of the economic and moral case for a better legal entry system for new immigrants and a path to citizenship for undocumented people who are already here.

This is not to say that business alone will rally America toward a more humane, economically beneficial immigration policy. Pro-immigrant advocates and grassroots organizations--with the capacity for direct action and Beltway advocacy--will remain the drivers of any national movement. But, to win, they need business firmly on their side. If investor efforts to get more corporations and CEOs on board with initiatives like Mayor Bloomberg's partnership bear fruit, it will certainly represent a step in the right direction.

(Cross-posted on www.americasquarterly.org.)