Today in the Senate, Senator Schumer is holding an important hearing: "Comprehensive Immigration Reform in 2009, Can We Do it and How?" At NDN, we believe the answer to whether Congress can pass reform this year is "yes." Below are seven reasons why:
1) In tough economic times, we need to remove the "trap door" under the minimum wage.
One of the first acts of the new Democratic Congress back in 2007 was to raise the minimum wage, to help alleviate the downward pressure on wages we had seen throughout the decade even prior to the current Great Recession. The problem with this strategy is that the minimum wage and other worker protections required by American law do not extend to those workers here illegally. With economic times worsening here and in the home countries of the migrants, unscrupulous employers have much more leverage over, and incentive to keep, undocumented workers. With five percent of the current workforce -- amazingly, with one out of every 20 workers now undocumented, this situation creates an unacceptable race to the bottom, downward pressure on wages, at a time when we need to be doing more for those struggling to get by, not less.
Legalizing the five percent of the work force that is undocumented would create a higher wage and benefit floor than exists today for all workers, further helping, as was intended by the increase in the minimum wage two years ago, to alleviate the downward pressure on wages for those struggling the most in this tough economy.
Additionally, it needs to be understood that these undocumenteds are already here and working. If you are undocumented, you are not eligible for welfare. If you are not working, you go home. Thus, in order to remove this "trap door," we need to either kick five percent of existing American workforce out of the country -- a moral and economic impossibility -- or legalize them. There is no third way on this one. They stay and become citizens or we chase them away.
Finally, what you hear from some of the opponents of immigration reform is that by passing reform, all of these immigrants will come and take the jobs away of everyday Americans. But again, the undocumented immigrants are already here, working, having kids, supporting local businesses. Legalization does not create a flood of new immigrants -- in fact, as discussed earlier, it puts the immigrant worker on a more even playing field with legal American workers. It does the very inverse of what is being suggested -- it creates fairer competition for American workers -- not unfair competition. The status quo is what should be most unacceptable to those who claim they are advocating for the American worker.
2) In a time of tight budgets, passing immigration reform will bring more money into the federal treasury.
Putting the undocumented population on the road to citizenship will also increase tax revenue in a time of economic crisis, as the newly legal immigrants will pay fees and fines, and become fully integrated into the U.S. tax-paying system. When immigration reform legislation passed the Senate in 2006, the Congressional Budge Office estimate that accompanied the bill projected Treasury revenues would see a net increase of $44 billion over 10 years.
3) Reforming our immigration system will increasingly be seen as a critical part of any comprehensive strategy to calm the increasingly violent border region.
Tackling the growing influence of the drug cartels in Mexico is going to be hard, cost a great deal of money, and take a long time. One quick and early step toward calming the region will be to take decisive action on clearing up one piece of the problem -- the vast illegal trade in undocumented migrants. Legalization will also help give these millions of families a greater stake in the United States, which will make it less likely that they contribute to the spread of the cartels influence.
4) Fixing the immigration system will help reinforce that it is a "new day" for U.S.-Latin American relations.
To his credit, President Obama has made it clear that he wants to see a significant improvement in our relations with our Latin neighbors and very clearly communicated that message during his recent trips to Mexico and the Summit of the Americas. Just as offering a new policy toward Cuba is part of establishing that it is truly a "new day" in hemispheric relations, ending the shameful treatment of Latin migrants here in the United States will go a long way in signaling that America is taking its relations with its southern neighbors much more seriously than in the past.
5) Passing immigration reform this year clears the way for a clean census next year.
Even though the government is constitutionally required to count everyone living in the United States every 10 years, the national GOP has made it clear that it will block efforts for the Census Bureau to count undocumented immigrants. Conducting a clean and thorough census is hard in any environment. If we add a protracted legal and political battle on top -- think Norm Coleman, a politicized U.S. Attorney process, Bush v Gore -- the chance of a failed or flawed census rises dramatically. This of course would not be good for the nation.
Passing immigration reform this year would go a long way to ensuring we have a clean and effective census count next year.
6) The Administration and Congress will grow weary of what we call "immigration proxy wars," and will want the issue taken off the table.
With rising violence in Mexico, and the everyday drumbeat of clashes and conflicts over immigration in communities across America, the broken immigration system is not going to fade from public consciousness any time soon. The very vocal minority on the right -- those who put this issue on the table in the first place -- will continue to try to attach amendments to other bills ensuring that various government benefits are not conferred upon undocumenteds. We have already seen battles pop up this year on virtually every major bill Congress has taken up, including SCHIP and the stimulus. By the fall, I think leaders of both parties will grow weary of these proxy battles popping up on every issue and will want to resolve the issue once and for all. Passing immigration reform will become essential to making progress on other much needed societal goals like moving toward universal health insurance.
7) Finally, in the age of Obama, we must be vigilant to stamp out racism wherever it appears.
Passing immigration reform this year would help take the air out of the balloon of what is the most virulent form of racism in American society today -- the attacks on Hispanics and undocumented immigrants. It will be increasingly difficult for the President and his allies to somehow argue that watching Glenn Beck act out burning alive of a person on the air over immigration, "left leaning" Ed Schultz give air time to avowed racist Tom Tancredo on MSNBC or Republican ads comparing Mexican immigrants to Islamic terrorists is somehow different from the racially insensitive speech that got Rush Limbaugh kicked off Monday Night Football, or Don Imus kicked off the radio.
So for those of us who want to see this vexing national problem addressed this year, this important hearing is a critical step forward. But we still have a long way to, and a lot of work ahead of us if we are to get this done this year.
(Also check out our recently released report, Making the Case for Passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform This Year, which succinctly lays out our case for why Congress can -- and should -- pass comprehensive immigration reform this year).
Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.