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Let's Reframe the Immigration Debate: Put the Focus on People

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As lawmakers revive proposals for comprehensive immigration reform, it's time also to reframe the debate. The word "immigration" refers to "the act of immigrating." But for the vast majority of the more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, as a practical matter, the "act of immigrating" ended more than a decade ago when they entered the country. Now, we as a society need to focus on how we treat immigrants (rather than "immigration") and we how we construct humane policies to promote inclusion, integration, and the greater good.

Rethinking the terms of the debate is not merely a semantic issue. It helps put a focus where it belongs -- on the massive numbers of people who are vitally entwined in American society. With a nod and a wink, the U.S. has developed an economy heavily dependent on the labor of people not legally entitled to hold jobs. The U.S. immigration system is widely described as "broken," but it maintains a balance between serving a functioning, economic engine even as its multi-billion-dollar deportation agency shatters records for roundups and repatriations.

Because they earn relatively low wages with no benefits, unlawful immigrants who comprise more than five percent of the U.S. labor force keep prices in check for the rest of us. In disproportionate numbers, they construct, fix, clean, and maintain our buildings. They look after kids who are not their own, and they take care of the elderly. They help produce the nation's food, then cook and dispense it in the country's cafeterias and restaurants.

Labor is just one part of the bigger picture. A humane immigrant policy needs to widen the lens and consider the extent to which unauthorized immigrants are ensconced in the shared American ecosystem -- our communities, history, economy, culture, educational system, religious life, you name it. We work together. Our children learn, play, and grow together, and sometimes fall in love. By sheer force of numbers, they are not the "other"; they are part of us, spread throughout American society.

De facto integration is becoming more common, as U.S. households increasingly include members with different immigration status. There are multiple patterns: siblings or partners may or may not be U.S. born, or may have documents or not. For every 12 babies born in the U.S., one is the child of an unauthorized immigrant. One study showed that as of 2005, 14.6 million persons lived in a "mixed status" home in which either the head of the family or the spouse was unauthorized. What does that mean for enforcement? To follow the letter of the law and deport each of those unauthorized residents would mean the breakup of 6.6 million families.

The Obama Administration's current deportation policy has already resulted in thousands of family separations. According to federal data obtained by the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank, between July 1, 2010, and Sept. 31, 2012, 204,810 deportations were issued for parents with citizen children. (To be sure, many of the parents had committed crimes, but the government doesn't disclose the severity of the infractions.) In a report called "Shattered Families," the same organization determined that a year ago, at least 5,100 children were living in foster care because immigration authorizes had detained or deported their parents.

The combination of anxiety, family breakups, and life in the shadows ripples beyond those who are immediately affected to society at large. The fear of deportations combined with often poor work conditions and exploitation, as well as a lack of well being has had profound social, psychological and economic implications for millions of people, not just immigrant families. A report published in the fall of 2011 in the Harvard Educational Review concluded:

"The evidence reveals a consistent pattern: the effects of unauthorized status on development across the lifespan are uniformly negative, with millions of U.S. children and youth at risk of lower educational performance, economic stagnation, blocked mobility, and ambiguous belonging... The sheer numbers -- currently more than 4.5 million citizen-children of unauthorized immigrant parents plus more than 1 million unauthorized children and youth --indicate a large-scale national concern that touches every state in the nation and reaches well into the future."

Beyond the psycho-social costs of current immigrant policies are the tremendous financial ones. By working off the books, millions of unauthorized immigrants are part of a vast underground cash economy that keeps billions of dollars a year out of the U.S. Treasury. Social integration and inclusion of migrants wouldn't only be more humane; direct economic benefits would accrue for the greater good. As was the case following the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, allowing immigrants to move out from the shadows would generate more tax revenues, higher wages and increased economic development as a result of more cash in bank deposits, savings accounts, investments, credit cards, and loans.

Given Americans' highly charged and emotional attitudes towards immigration, a deliberate policy fostering immigrant inclusion might seem farfetched. But it's only one cautious step in the direction many European nations have already taken either through specific integration ministries or with programs administered by variety of government agencies. Sweden's annual integration budget, for example is $738 million. We can and should debate and analyze the effectiveness and wisdom of the European programs. An American model would certainly have its own characteristics. But as we embark one again on an immigration debate it is time to move beyond the single-minded fixation on enforcement. The DREAM Act is one important step, but it's limited. Let's keep moving in the same direction. Whether we call "legalization," or "path toward citizenship," or some other term, a humane policy of immigrant inclusion and integration will promote social stability and economic growth for all Americans.

Journalist Jeffrey Kaye is author of Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley, 2010)