Fixing our broken immigration system is vital to America’s economic recovery.
As our economy shrinks, state governments are desperate for revenue. Without additional sources of funds, they are increasingly making the decision to cut important social services, raise taxes or even worse, lay off hard-working state employees.
Recently, Tennessee laid-off 850 workers (the Department of Intellectual Disabilities took the biggest hit, along with children’s services). Gov. Phil Bredesen called these cuts “unfortunate, but necessary” to keep Tennessee afloat.
Although there is no silver bullet for our economic troubles, an important source of revenue and economic growth is available to states across the nation, if we have the foresight and resolve to reform our immigration system now.
It is no secret that there is an underground labor force in this country. For more than 20 years, the immigration system has grown increasingly out of sync with the needs of a healthy economy, and immigrant workers have been lured here through an immigration system designed to fail. The government sends these workers mixed messages, making it dangerous and expensive to cross the border, yet issuing taxpayer numbers and collecting taxes once they get here. The vast majority of these immigrants come to work honest jobs and create a better future for their families. Instead, they are often exploited by bad apple employers and left without a pathway to citizenship.
Rather than continuing to enforce policies that aren’t working, what if we gave these folks a chance to get on the right side of the law, while securing our borders and reforming our laws so that this doesn’t happen again?
Imagine the economic impact of millions of immigrants paying their back taxes and a fine to register with the government. Imagine the new revenue generated when these immigrants can finally buy insurance, earn a driver’s license and purchase a car. Imagine the benefit for American workers when bad apple employers can no longer exploit these immigrants to bring down wages.
Every day we delay reforming our immigration system, we suffer economically. According to UCLA researcher Raul Hinojosa, legalizing immigrant workers would contribute $1.5 trillion to the nation’s productivity over 10 years, as more tax revenues are collected, wages increase for U.S.-born and foreign-born workers alike, and immigrants spend more in our economy.
There are some who would argue that reforming our immigration system is unnecessary. To them, all we need to do is enforce the law, deport millions of immigrant workers and hope our unemployment numbers shrink as a result.
Unfortunately, there are two main problems with this plan.
First, unemployment is a critical problem facing our nation. Millions of Americans are out of work and struggling to keep their families afloat. That’s why we shouldn’t take it lightly by suggesting that mass deportations would solve our problems. It is unrealistic to think that unemployed GM workers from Smyrna, Tenn., can pack up their families, take a bus to Georgia and harvest crops as migrant farm workers. What we need are real middle-class jobs. We need better opportunities for everyone. We need stabilization in the economy, and immigration reform is a huge part of that.
Second, we have tried the enforcement-only approach. That has basically been the strategy of every president since Reagan. In that time period, we’ve increased the dollars spent on immigration enforcement, yet the number of undocumented workers has increased every year. It is unrealistic to suggest that we could or should devote our limited resources to trying to identify and deport more than 10 million people, while leaving some of their children and spouses alone to fend for themselves. If the anti-reform lobby has its way, we will spend hundreds of billions of dollars trying to do just that. Worse yet, if successful, this policy would shock local economies, resulting in $1.8 trillion in annual lost spending, $651.5 billion in annual lost output, and millions of lost jobs, according to a study last year by The Perryman Group.
In a time of economic turmoil, we can’t afford to waste our money on unrealistic policies that would hurt American workers and families. Blind enforcement of our broken immigration policies is the business-as-usual approach. What we need are workable solutions that uphold our values and move us forward together.
As Congress prepares to address the most important problem facing our nation — the economy — we should hope lawmakers realize that reforming our broken immigration system is an essential part of the solution.
Elias Feghali is communications director for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.