In his State of the Union speech, President Obama committed his Administration to pass comprehensive immigration reform. There are those who claim that this year immigration reform is a diversion from the priority task of fixing the economy -- and also politically impossible to achieve.
In fact, comprehensive immigration reform is critical for America's long term economic success and is one of the few political initiatives that could receive genuine bipartisan support in the current Congress.
The immigration system is broken -- and it costs the American economy billions in lost productivity, wasted resources, underdeveloped human capital, depressed wages, and uncollected tax revenue.
The immigration reform issue is also very acutely and personally important to the many recent immigrants to America, their families, friends and communities. The way it is addressed in Congress will have profound long-term political consequences.
The Current Immigration System is an Economic Albatross
The roughly twelve million undocumented immigrants in the United States create a permanent underclass of workers who exist in the shadows of our society. Their lack of legal status makes them easy prey for economic exploitation by unscrupulous employers that drag down wages and working conditions for everyone.
Unscrupulous companies that hire undocumented aliens and pay below-standard wages, also undercut law-abiding employers, leading a race to the bottom and preventing law-abiding companies from being able to compete.
The result is a growing number of immigrant -- and non-immigrant-workers -- who receive lower wages and as a consequence spend less on the economy's goods and services.
Just as bad, the current immigration laws prevent undocumented immigrants from investing in their own education and training -- the principal engine of economic growth. Current law makes it nearly impossible for undocumented immigrants to get financial support for higher education. Even those who grew up in America, after being brought here as children, are barred from receiving federal assistance for college.
Several weeks ago, the Center for American Progress published a study concluding that comprehensive immigration reform would lead to a $1.5 trillion growth in gross domestic product over the next ten years.
That finding is based on surveys indicating that newly legalized immigrants experience substantial increases in wages, go on to better jobs, and invest heavily in higher education.
The study concluded that reform would raise the "wage floor" for all workers, increase willingness of newly-legalized immigrants to invest in the economy and purchase big-ticket items like homes, produce more income and spending, and as a consequence generate more tax revenue for government.
The effect of immigration reform would be especially pronounced when it comes to tax revenue and government expenditures. Currently employers often pay undocumented workers "under the table." That costs government -- and the Social Security Trust Fund -- billions of dollars in lost revenue. At the same time, billions more are expended to apprehend, detain and deport productive members of society.
And, of course, the status quo diverts precious law enforcement resources from apprehending serious criminals and terrorists to chasing down bus boys and farm workers.
America's long-term economic success requires that we fix the broken immigration system. We can't rebuild a strong, robust economy on top of a broken immigration system.
The Status Quo is Morally Unacceptable
Of course for immigrants and their friends and families, that broken immigration system is more than an economic disaster. It destroys families and prevents millions of ordinary people from living up to their potential and fully contributing to our society. It also stands in stark contradiction to fundamental American values.
Every day Congress puts off reforming our immigration system, millions of American families, including five million U.S. citizens who live in families with undocumented immigrants, live in fear that their families will be torn apart by the inflexible immigration system -- all because the system provides no way for decent, hard-working immigrants to become legal.
There is Only One Common Sense Solution
Congress has a clear choice: reform that strengthens the rule of law and our economy, or a phony non-solution that will make a bad situation worse.
The bottom line is that our government is not going to round up twelve million undocumented immigrants, put them on trains, buses and airplanes, and ship them back to their countries of origin. Mass deportation of millions of workers and their families is a phony non-solution that is both impractical and un-American. It is not a politically, morally or economically acceptable solution to the problem of illegal immigration. As a practical matter it will never happen -- and if it ever did, economists have estimated it would cost our economy $2.6 trillion dollars in gross domestic product over the next ten years.
So the only real alternatives are the status quo and comprehensive immigration reform.
Comprehensive immigration reform is the only plan that will strengthen the rule of law, level the playing field in the workplace, reduce illegal immigration to a trickle, and reward those who play by the rules.
It does so through a combination of smart and effective border enforcement, a crackdown on illegal hiring and unfair labor practices, modernizing the legal immigration system, and requiring those here illegally to register with the government, pass background checks, study English, pay taxes, and get in line to work towards citizenship.
It would make sure those who here are in the system legally, that all workers and employers are paying their fair share of taxes, and that those immigrants who come in the future do so legally too.
In addition to its benefits here at home, comprehensively addressing the immigration issue will improve the way America is viewed around the world -- and especially in Latin America.
Is Comprehensive Immigration Reform Politically Possible?
Many of those who think immigration reform can't pass this year have it confused with health care, clean energy or holding Wall Street Bank accountable. Immigration reform involves a different political dynamic than those equally critical issues. Dealing with each of those issues requires that Progressives take on massive, powerful economic interests that are often defended by the Republicans and some conservative Democrats. That is not true in the case of immigration.
This year, for the first time, the business community and organized labor have come together to support the effort for reform. Both realize that immigration reform is critical to long term economic growth and job creation. Labor realizes that the wages and working conditions of its members depend heavily on the elimination of a shadow labor market that is not subject to wage, labor and health and safety laws.
The Democratic leadership in both Houses -- and the White House -- all understand acutely how important this issue is for Latinos -- the fastest growing group of American voters. That understanding is shared by many Republicans as well, who are not keen on writing off the Hispanic vote for a generation.
They realize that comprehensive immigration reform is a critical priority for all recent immigrant groups -- and especially Latinos. These groups are growing faster in numbers and political importance than any other demographic group in America. For Latinos in particular, comprehensive immigration reform is a realignment issue -- much like civil rights issues were for African Americans in the 1960's.
The Tea Party gang -- and a vocal anti-immigrant minority -- will certainly do everything it can to intimidate swing district Democrats and many Republicans into voting against immigration reform. But the movement to pass legislation will not be up against a massive drumbeat of negative ads, or a well-heeled corps of entrenched lobbyists that have been such factors in the battle for health insurance reform.
A number of Democrats in swing districts -- and Republicans who might be subject to primary challenges -- will certainly be reluctant to vote for immigration reform.
But it has always been clear that to pass, immigration reform must be bi-partisan. And today that is entirely possible. There is a solid core of Republicans -- both in the House and Senate -- who understand (just as George Bush and Karl Rove understood) the importance of the Latino vote. To pass the Senate, a bill would need the support of at least six Republicans. In the House, it would probably need the support of 20 to 25 Republicans. That is entirely doable -- especially given the number of Republicans whose districts include large agri-business sectors that strongly support reform.
Within the next few weeks it is likely that a bi-partisan bill will in fact be offered in the Senate. Its passage will be strongly supported by the Democratic Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who is heavily committed to immigration reform -- both because of his personal concern for the issue and the fact that Nevada is now 25% Latino.
The White House is fully invested in passing immigration reform this year and understands completely that President Obama won a number of Western states largely on the strength of strong support in the Latino community.
And finally, the immigration reform movement is organized as never before -- lead by a highly sophisticated campaign called Immigration Reform for America.
The bottom line is simple. Pundits who make smug predictions about how immigration reform is impossible this year should think again. On the other hand, many of them are the same folks who were absolutely certain that Barack Obama would never be President, that Massachusetts would never elect a Republican Senator or that this year's New Orleans Saints would never make it to the Super Bowl.
Last fall I had the occasion to visit the museum at Ellis Island in New York that commemorates the millions of immigrants that have come to America to seek a better life -- and build our extraordinary multi-cultural society. There were pictures of the Italians, Poles, Germans, Jews, Russians, Irish, and so many others who came here in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
With the exception of Native Americas, all of our forebearers came from another land. And there is no disputing that the pioneering immigrant spirit has done more than anything to forge America's "Yes We Can", optimistic, entrepreneurial, sense of possibility.
It would certainly be fitting, if on the next 4th of July, President Obama could sign a long overdue Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill there at Ellis Island where the spirits of previous generations of American immigrants could bear witness as America recommits itself yet again to fulfilling its historically unique role of showing the world that it is possible to create a country where many cultures can live and work together to create a truly democratic society.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on Amazon.com.
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