10/19/2011 06:10 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2011

A Humanitarian Crisis in the Making?

The issue of "illegal" immigration constantly pervades news and public debate -- and for good reason.  Currently 8.8 million people live in households headed by at least one unauthorized immigrant, and most of the people living in these "mixed status" households are U.S. citizens.

Just last week the immigration issue returned to the headlines when Alabama's federal appeals court temporarily blocked portions of strict immigration law including a provision which would require public schools to check the immigration status of students.

This followed on the heels of earlier in the week out of Arizona, when Hispanic activists and U.S. teachers declared an Arizona-style immigration law upheld by a federal judge as a "humanitarian crisis" as thousands of parents are keeping children home, worried that teachers will act as immigration agents.

It is time for our nation's debate around "illegal immigration" to discard the faulty notion that unauthorized immigrants are transient newcomers. Approximately two million of the nation's unauthorized immigrants were brought to this country as children, and 65,000 unauthorized immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools annually.

Almost half of unauthorized immigrant heads of household, who have lived in the United States for more than ten years, own their homes. Nearly half of all unauthorized immigrant households (47 percent) consist of couples with children.  Inside these households, we see what are called "mixed-status" families -- families in which at least one parent is unauthorized.

The children of unauthorized immigrants, 73 percent of whom were born in the United States, account for 6.8 percent of the students enrolled in the nation's elementary schools. In other words, the unauthorized immigrants seeking to become licensed drivers include a great number of U.S. high school graduates, homeowners, parents and spouses of citizens.

Despite significant obstacles, unauthorized immigrants have integrated into local communities. Their children, whether authorized or not, have been reared as Americans. Every day, these immigrants work, study, worship and play alongside U.S. citizens.

And after years of effort to settle into U.S. life, the prospect of returning to a place that their children know only through photographs and internet searches is simply untenable. Rates of unauthorized entry into the United States have declined sharply in recent years, but because so many unauthorized immigrants are integrated into our communities, the rates of return migration have not increased, particularly among Mexicans who comprise the majority of the unauthorized population. This, even during a severe recession and in the face of such restrictive state laws as those recently passed in Georgia and Alabama.

Over the past two decades, settlement patterns for unauthorized immigrants have shifted to new destinations, particularly in the U.S. Southeast.  In these regions, immigrants are much more likely to live in suburbs than in the center-city -- communities that lack even minimal public transportation.

When unauthorized immigrants began to settle in these areas, in the 1990s and early 2000s, they could obtain driver's licenses, and many developed small businesses (such as landscaping and housekeeping) that required daily travel across far-flung metropolitan areas. But those licenses have expired, with no option for renewal, and new local and state laws effectively make driving without a license a deportable offense.

Because these unauthorized immigrants and their children have such a great deal to lose if forced to leave, many make extraordinary efforts to establish residency in New Mexico. I know families in Georgia in which the father and mother have split time living in New Mexico, so that the family may have primary residency there.

After living for several months in a more hospitable region of the country, some express the desire to remain in New Mexico, but in a flagging real estate market, their homes are difficult to sell, and work, schools, friends, and churches draw them back to increasingly precarious lives in the Southeast. Without any doubt, if they had the capacity to visit their local Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain a new driver's license upon their return, they would. But, in 47 U.S. states, that simply is not an option.

Ample evidence exists to show that immigrants -- and particularly unauthorized immigrants -- are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. Not only are immigrants less likely to commit crimes than the native-born, but cities, towns, and neighborhoods with immigrants are, in fact, safer than those without immigrants.

A 2008 study by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed that cities with a high share of recent immigrants have lower rates of both property crimes and violent crimes than other cities in the state.  And, contradicting what we have been told about immigration and crime in Arizona, the Arizona Department of Public Safety reported significant reductions in crime between 2002 and 2009, the same period in which immigrant populations were on the rise.

Unauthorized immigrants and their children are settled. Rather than forcing them into the shadows, our elected officials should actively seek to harness their energy, vitality, and resiliency to build safe, thriving communities.