Immigration Enforcement

Originally published at care2.com on July 6, 2009

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported that more than 500 U.S. military servicemembers would take the Oath of Allegiance to become U.S. citizens this July 4th.  Some participated in ceremonies in Iraq, others at military bases in the United States.   These new citizen soldiers make up only a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants given citizenship every year, but they are an apt symbol of how important immigrants are to this country.  Last year, breaking previous records, more than a million immigrants became citizens.

Meanwhile, the administration of Barack Obama is taking action to increase policing of employers who hire illegal workers.  The administration reported that its investigations recently targeted more than 600 businesses.  In fact, the New York Times reported that 650 businesses were notified on just one day of pending audits, up from 503 audits for the entire last year of the Bush administration. The enhanced enforcement is part of President Obama’s policy of emphasizing border enforcement and employer compliance rather than stepping up action against individual illegal immigrant workers.

The President has also called on lawmakers to write immigration legislation that further increases border enforcement and legal immigration, but also creates a path towards legalization for many illegal residents.  Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who chairs a subcommittee on immigration, will likely take the Senate lead.  He may not have an easy task.

The issue has aroused passionate debate in support of and opposition to the estimated 12 million illegal residents already in the United States.  Commentators, such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs, fan the flames of anti-immigrant anger by focusing on criminal activity and threats from abroad as though every immigrant was a member of a gang or terror cell.  Criticism of illegal immigration is fierce, and most opponents strongly object to proposals to solve the problem through reform legislation containing any form of legalization (often described as “amnesty”). Besides seeing illegal residents as breaking the law, opposition to legalization focusess on the competition for jobs, burden on public resources, and crime and security concerns.

Reform advocates, while still seeking legalization of the vast majority of those already in the country, are concentrating on border enforcement and workplace compliance in an effort to meet some of the concerns raised by illegal immigration.  However, a CNN commentary by Ruben Navarrettepoints out that there are disagreements among those seeking comprehensive legislation.  For example, pro-business Republicans are seeking a guest worker program, but working against employer sanctions.   Pro-labor Democrats are against guest worker plans but support a path to citizenship.

Navarrette warns everyone in search of a solution to avoid going to the extremes:  For legalization supporters, that is advocating open borders; and for those opposed to a path to citizenship, that is racism and ethnic prejudice, he says.

President Obama’s enforcement program and the economic downturn may have a significant effect on lowering illegal entry into the United States.  It is not yet known whether this could also significantly lower the vast number of illegal residents in the United States.  It is logical that as the labor market for low-wage workers weakens, some workers might return to their home countries, at least if there are prospects for work or a lower cost-of-living to be found there.

But could this adequately resolve the illegal resident issue?

Even if illegal residency decreases, there will likely remain a demand for low-cost labor.  For U.S. manufacters, exports will be an important aspect leading the U.S. out of the recession.  They will need low-cost labor to trade competatively in the global marketplace.  One reason jobs were exported from the United States in recent years was because of higher labor costs.  Moreover, countries with abundant labor supplies such as China and India have higher economic growth rates and are poised to economically overtake Western nations during the 21st century.

Organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) work in the opposite direction, calling for a “time-out” or decrease in the number of legal immigrants coming to the United States. Most anti-immigrant or anti-illegal immigrant positions come from the perspective of protecting the public – from crime, from cultural change, unfair employment competition, etc.  But the concerns of organizations like FAIR would be better resolved by demanding government support tocommunities heavily burdened by an influx of legal and illegal immigrants.  Support could take the form of free English classes, greater federal funds to public schools, hospitals and clinics, and additional law-enforcement.  Other nations, such as Canada, provide substantial governmental support to ease the assimilation and immigration transition.

If new legislation eased the burden of immigration on American communities, the focus on illegal immigration might be decreased.  Then we could turn to increasing the number of legal immigrants permited to work in the United States to match the needs of the U.S. labor market. This would offer a path to prosperity for the nation that would serve established as well as new Americans. 

Those doubting that the nation’s economic needs are sufficient to increase the number of legal residents should remember that, before the recent recession, unemployment rates in the United States were remarkably low, despite the fact that a substantial percentage of twleve million undocumented immigrants were generally participating in the labor market.  Their work, which could not have been done by others in such a tight pre-recession labor market, created wealth for the nation, although this wealth was not spread evenly through society.

Rather than debating whether to remove or legalize illegal residents, we should be welcoming more immigrants and working to make their assimilation and transition as positive as possible for our national community.  Let’s share the costs and benefits of expanded legal immigration, removing some of the reasons for its opposition.

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