This Migration and Refugee Services staff paper highlights the Church's interest in proposals to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. It reflects the perspective of Catholic social teaching relating to undocumented immigrants and presents arguments in favor of a legalization program. This paper is being used by the Bishops' Committee on Migration to further consider public policy initiatives and has been issued with the expressed approval of the chairman.
Mark D. Franken
The author wishes to thank Kevin Appleby, Connie Combs, and Rocio Salvador for their assistance in the drafting of this paper.
Legalization Would Enhance National Security
- Immigrants were not responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;
- Legalization would enhance national security by bringing undocumented immigrants "in from the shadows," thereby allowing the government to keep better track of who is in the United States;
- National security is not effectively enhanced by trying to stop people from coming to the United States, but by improving the effectiveness of background checks on those who do.
Legalization Would Not "Steal" Jobs From the Native-Born, Even During a Recession
- Legalization would benefit immigrants who were contributing to the U.S. economy long before the most recent recession began and who were disproportionately hurt by its effects.
Legalization Would Keep Families Together and Improve the Well-being of U.S.-Citizen Children
- Given that most immigrant families are of "mixed status," containing at least one child who is a U.S. citizen and one parent who is not a citizen, policies which target undocumented immigrants inevitably impact U.S.- citizen children.
Legalization Would Not Harm Immigrants "Waiting in Line" by "Rewarding Lawbreakers"
- Current limits on family reunification actually encourage undocumented immigration by imposing upon the spouses and children of lawful permanent residents at least a 5-year wait in reuniting with their loved ones;
- Legalization could benefit both those immigrants who have been waiting in line for visas and those without documentation.
A Comprehensive Legalization Program Would Not Be A Repeat of the 1986 "Amnesty"
- A comprehensive legalization program would establish a legalization process, rather than a blanket "amnesty";
- By taking account of the economic forces and the family and community ties that drive immigration in the first place, an effective legalization program would reduce undocumented migration over time.
Legalization Would Maintain the Economic Contributions of Undocumented Immigrants
- Undocumented immigrants from Mexico alone contributed between $154 billion and $220 billion to the Gross Domestic Product of the United States in 2000;
- Undocumented immigrants paid up to $20 billion in Social Security taxes between 1990 and 1998.
Legalization Would Maintain the Economic Contributions of Immigrant Families & Communities
- Immigrants paid $80,000 per person more in taxes during their lifetimes than they received in public benefits as of 1998;
- Due to immigrants' younger age profile compared to the "native" population, immigrants will contribute up to $500 billion to Social Security from 1998 to 2022.
Legalization Would Improve Wages and Working Conditions
- The undocumented status of many workers is a principal reason for low pay and poor work conditions in industries with large numbers of immigrant workers.
Legalization Would Promote Development and Stability in Mexico and Central America
- Remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean from immigrants, primarily those living in the United States, totaled $20 billion in 2000.
Legalization Would Bring U.S. Immigration Policy in Line with U.S. Economic Policy
- U.S. immigration policy runs counter to U.S. economic policies, such as NAFTA, that facilitate migration.
Introduction: Legalization After September 11
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have changed dramatically the nature of the debate over immigration in the United States. Any proposal to reform the U.S. immigration system is now analyzed in terms of whether it increases or lessens the chance that foreign terrorists might enter the country. As a result of this heightened concern over national security, proposals to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States - which gained considerable momentum prior to September 11 - have been thrown into uncertainty. In addition, the recession which struck the nation shortly before the attacks, and deepened immediately afterwards, reinvigorated the debate over the impact of immigrants on the U.S. economy, particularly the job market.
Lawmakers and activists who have long advocated highly restrictionist immigration policies seized upon the September 11 attacks and the recession as alleged proof of the dangers inherent in immigration. The restrictionist camp has even portrayed undocumented immigrants as a threat to national security, even though the September 11 hijackers entered the United States on legitimate temporary visas. Restrictionists also claim that the recession and corresponding increase in unemployment proves that the U.S. economy does not need immigrant labor and that immigrants "steal" jobs from "natives."
Upon close examination, these claims carry little weight. To begin with, immigrants were not responsible for the September 11 attacks. The terrorists entered as temporary visitors, not permanent residents. Immigrants to the United States come to build better lives for themselves and their families by sharing in U.S. society, not tearing it down. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 serves as a reminder that the threat of terrorism does not lie with people of any particular color, faith, or nationality. Just as the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing did not act on behalf of U.S. "natives," neither did the terrorists of September 11 carry out their attacks as representatives of immigrants, Arabs, or Muslims. Furthermore, legalization of undocumented immigrants would enhance national security by bringing them above ground, thereby allowing the government to keep better track of who is in the United States. In addition, legalization would benefit immigrants who are already part of the U.S. economy and who were among the hardest hit by the recession that began in the spring of 2001.
Policymakers and experts of all political stripes have spoken out against the scapegoating of immigrants in the wake of the September 11 attacks. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, speaking before delegates to the United Nations General Assembly's Special Session on Terrorism on October 1, 2001, pointed out that the September 11 attacks should not be interpreted as part of a struggle between U.S. "natives" and immigrants. He observed that on
"September 11th, 2001, New York City...was viciously attacked in an unprovoked act of war...innocent men, women, and children of every race, religion, and ethnicity are lost. Among these were people from 80 different nations...Like the victims of the World Trade Center attack, we are of every race, religion, and ethnicity. Our diversity has always been our greatest source of strength. It's the thing that renews us and revives us in every generation - our openness to new people from all over the world." (1)
Similarly, James Ziglar, Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), offered a plea not to equate the September 11 hijackers with immigrants in general. During a hearing of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee on October 17, 2001, he commented that the "issue we are facing in the country today is not an issue about immigration. It's an issue about evil. The hijackers were not immigrants. They were nonimmigrants. They were visitors to our country, who came here to do evil." (2)
Daniel Griswold, Associate Director of the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies, observed in a September 28, 2001, opinion piece that it "would be a national shame if, in the name of security, we were to close the door to immigrants who come here to work and build a better life for themselves and their families. Like the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center towers stood as monuments to America's openness to immigration." (3)
The perpetrators of the September 11 attacks made no distinctions among their victims in terms of color, religion, national origin, or legal status. Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants from every part of the globe died alongside "whites," Christians, and the native born. Attempting to demonize any of these groups as somehow responsible for the attacks is not only completely inaccurate, but belittles the suffering endured by many victims and their families.
Catholic Social Teaching on Legalization
As the United States enters its fourth century and a new millennium, it is incumbent upon lawmakers to review U.S. policy toward immigration, upon which our nation was built, and to fashion a long-term national policy which balances legal immigration against the need to maintain the integrity of our national borders. Primary among the many considerations within this area is the need to address the growing number of undocumented immigrants.
The Jubilee Year of 2000 and beyond has given policymakers an opportunity to reexamine the status of those immigrants in the United States who contribute to our society, but who do not enjoy permanent legal status and the benefits that come with such status. The commitment to justice for these immigrants, who have contributed to our nation both economically and socially, is an important aspect of celebrating the Jubilee year. As an example of how nations might put the "forgiveness and reconciliation" of the Jubilee into practice, Pope John Paul II has said that a "significant gesture would certainly be one in which reconciliation, a genuine dimension of the Jubilee, is expressed in a form of amnesty for a broad group of these immigrants who suffer the tragedy of precariousness and uncertainty more than others, namely, illegal immigrants." (4)
Legalization is a matter of justice. Until authentic human development is achieved in what is now the developing world, individuals will migrate in order to improve their condition. Indeed, those who come to the United States in an undocumented status come largely to seek a better life for themselves and their families, or simply to survive. While the Church does not advocate undocumented immigration into the United States, it affirms "the human dignity of the undocumented who live within our midst and makes every effort to ensure that their basic needs are met and that their human rights are not trampled upon." (5)
Further, the Church recognizes the right of the individual to seek work in order to support a family. In the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II underscores the need to balance the rights of nations to control their borders with basic human rights, especially the right to work. If this right cannot be exercised in one's country of origin, then principles of international solidarity should be considered: "Interdependence must be transformed into solidarity based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all." (6) Underlying this principle is the notion that "no one can say that he is not responsible for the well-being of his brother or sister." (7)
Until such time as the global community effectively addresses the root causes of undocumented migration, individual nations must confront the presence of undocumented immigrants in a manner which upholds the dignity and basic human rights of all immigrants, regardless of their legal status. Legalization provides one method for achieving this goal which benefits both the individual and the larger society. The U.S. Catholic bishops acknowledge this reality in their November 2000 statement, Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity: "We bishops commit ourselves and all the members of our church communities to continue the work of advocacy for laws that respect the human rights of immigrants and preserve the unity of the immigrant family...We join with others of good will in a call for legalization opportunities for the maximum number of undocumented persons, particularly those who have built equities and otherwise contributed to their communities." (8)
Legalization protects the undocumented immigrant and the temporary legal worker from exploitation in the workplace. In his encyclical, On Human Work, John Paul II articulates the Church's concern for the foreign worker: "Immigration in search of work must in no way become an opportunity for financial and social exploitation as regards the work relationship: the same criteria should be applied to immigrant workers as to all other workers in society concerned." (9) Especially for the undocumented farmworker, legalization would provide the full protection of labor and wage laws and help prevent the depression of U.S. labor standards and wages in the agricultural industry as a whole. For both the undocumented and temporary workers, legalization provides stability by providing a guarantee to employers that employees will not be suddenly deported and by allowing employees to plan for the needs of their families through long-term employment.
In his speech to the Fourth World Congress of the Pastoral Congress on Migrants and Refugees, Pope John Paul II called for a general amnesty worldwide for illegal immigrants and for a renewed focus on the problem of world migration and the movement of peoples. The Church calls on U.S. policymakers to accept this call for a reexamination of this vital issue and its impact both nationally and globally. An important gesture toward a revitalized immigration policy in the new millennium would be the extension of legalization to undocumented immigrants.
Background to the Legalization Debate
During the year prior to the September 11 attacks, the possibility of a large-scale legalization program for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, particularly Mexicans, had been the primary focus of the national immigration debate. The debate was fueled by high-level discussions on immigration and border policies between the U.S. and Mexican governments, initiated in February 2000 by President Bush and President Vicente Fox. In the course of this debate, a powerful coalition of labor unions, business associations, immigrant advocates, religious groups, and political strategists emerged in favor of some sort of legalization program. (10)
Proponents, including the U.S. Catholic bishops, emphasized that legalization would yield numerous benefits both for immigrants and the United States. Legalization would preserve the unity of families containing both undocumented and U.S.-citizen members, and enhance the welfare of U.S.-citizen children born to immigrant parents who are undocumented. It would maintain the economic contributions of undocumented immigrants in particular, and all immigrants in general, most notably their immense contribution to the Social Security trust fund at a time when the "baby boom" generation is retiring. Legalization would improve wages and working conditions in industries with large numbers of immigrant workers. It would promote economic development and political stability, and thus reduce migratory pressures, in Mexico and Central America through the continued flow of remittances sent by immigrants living in the United States. And legalization would bring U.S. immigration policy in line with U.S. economic policies, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that encourage the movement of people across borders.
President Bush expressed views such as these during an August 24, 2001, press conference when he commented that "family values do not stop at the Rio Bravo. There are people in Mexico who have got children who are worried about where they are going to get their next meal from...they're willing to walk across miles of desert to do work that some Americans won't do...And we've got to respect that..." (11) On September 4, 2001, Bush also emphasized the need to "understand that the Mexican worker has had a positive impact on the U.S. economy and that there ought to be some normalization process." (12)
These sentiments received a wide public airing on the editorial pages of major newspapers across the country prior to the September 11 attacks. An August 23, 2001, Washington Post editorial pointed out that "millions of illegal immigrants fill jobs that are critical to the American economy and send home earnings that are vital to their native countries. It's right to bring those workers out of the shadows, where their status leaves them vulnerable to exploitation." (13) Chicago Tribune editors argued on August 6, 2001, that "human compassion and fairness - as well as the United States' historic willingness to embrace new citizens - dictate that people who have been working here for a certain number of years, contributing to the economy, perhaps even marrying and raising a family, and have stayed out of legal trouble, ought to have a chance to legalize their status." (14) New York Times editors noted on July 23, 2001, that although they previously opposed any legalization program for undocumented Mexicans in the United States, they "believe that growing interdependence of the American and Mexican economies and the installation of a reform government in Mexico permit the adoption of new border policies," including some form of legalization. (15)
Opponents of legalization countered that any plan to "regularize" the status of undocumented immigrants would encourage even higher levels of unauthorized immigration, to the detriment of those immigrants who have been "waiting in line" to enter legally, by sending a message to other countries that U.S. laws can be flouted with impunity. Legalization opponents maintain that this would result in greater economic costs to U.S. society as more immigrants consume public resources and take jobs from "natives." The rhetoric of opponents became particularly alarmist in the wake of the 2000 Census, which revealed that the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States stood at about 8.7 million, an increase of nearly 5 million since 1990. (This increase was due not just to increased immigration, but to greater efforts during the 2000 Census to reach traditionally undercounted minority groups that were missed in the 1990 Census. (16)) About 44 percent, or 3.9 million, of undocumented immigrants in 2000 were from Mexico. (17)
Upon close examination, the arguments of legalization opponents have proven to be unsubstantiated. The notion that a legalization program would automatically open the flood gates and harm those who have "played by the rules" ignores that a gradual legalization process, undertaken as part of more comprehensive immigration reform, would likely have the opposite effect. Furthermore, the simplistic labeling of undocumented immigrants as "lawbreakers" and "job stealers" has little credibility considering the role of U.S. economic policies such as NAFTA in promoting migration; the heavy dependence of many U.S. industries on undocumented workers; and the fact that most border-crossers are fleeing poverty and unemployment.
Although talk of legalization briefly ground to a halt in policymaking circles immediately after the September 11 attacks, it has since resurfaced. In an effort to refocus the immigration debate on legalization in the post-September 11 era, and to emphasize that legalization presents no threat to national security or to the U.S. economy, Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-SD) and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-3rd/MO) traveled to Mexico to meet with President Vicente Fox on November 17, 2001. During a press conference following the meeting, Gephardt noted that "we must not let the terrorists who took advantage of our open society stall progress for immigrants who pay taxes and contribute to our country in so many ways." (18) He also pointed out that "if you are regularizing status, you are also understanding the people you are dealing with are not terrorists." He observed that those benefitting from regularization are "people who have been in the United States for a long time, paid taxes, obeyed the laws and been very good citizens." (19) The day following the meeting with Fox, the two Congressmen toured villages in the central Mexican state of Puebla. During the trip, Daschle promised listeners that "we want to ensure that those people who have come from Puebla to the Northeast and want to stay in the United States as citizens can do so." (20)
In considering the arguments of legalization opponents, it is important to maintain a sense of historical perspective on the immigration debate, particularly in a nation of immigrants such as the United States. One hundred years ago, Irish and Italian immigrants who arrived in the United States were widely viewed as members of distinct "races" different from that of the native-born. Today, these same groups are generally not subject to such racial categorizations. (21) The definition of "Hispanic" is similarly malleable, given that it encompasses peoples of many different ethnicities and national origins, and particularly since Hispanic influence in western and southwestern states predates the annexation of those areas by the United States. Finally, the realities of globalization, in which economies and societies around the world are becoming ever more interdependent, demand an immigration policy that changes with the times.
The Case for Legalization
Legalization Would Enhance National Security
Arguments that portray immigrants in general, and legalization in particular, as dangers to national security are based on the flawed assumption that terrorist threats from abroad can be reduced by trying to "seal the border." In fact, attempting to keep everyone out of the United States is not only highly unrealistic in an increasingly globalized economy, but represents an inefficient and haphazard approach to national security. By incorrectly equating immigration policy with border security, such an approach fails to address the specific security lapses that are the true culprits in allowing terrorists to enter the United States. National security is not enhanced by attempting to stop people from coming to the United States, but by improving the effectiveness of background checks on those who do.
In this regard, legalization actually would enhance national security by allowing the federal government to keep better track of who is in the country. (22) As Representative Howard Berman (D-26th/CA), member of the House Immigration Subcommittee, noted in an interview in early October 2001, "an orderly program of earned adjustment, based on work history and continuity of work, that involves stages of getting full status, lets us know who is here. When they go through a process of adjudication, they come out of the shadows." (23)
This view was reiterated in an October 21, 2001, Chicago Tribune editorial which argued that it "will remain far better for the economy and for national security to legalize a large part of the vast illegal immigrant underground than to leave it lurking in the shadows." (24) Similarly, Washington Post editors noted on November 26, 2001, that "finding ways to bring longtime illegal residents into the sunshine and direct the flow of workers into legal channels would be another step toward getting a better handle on who is here and who is crossing the border." (25)
In contrast to the "seal the border" approach of immigration restrictionists, experts on immigration policy and terrorism have described concrete steps that can be taken to tighten border security without launching an unfocused attack on immigrants as a whole. An expert panel convened by the Migration Policy Institute on September 28, 2001, concluded that national security depends on timely and effective intelligence gathering and information sharing, not immigration policy. (26) From this perspective, achieving greater national security involves improving the quality of the intelligence gathered by federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies and the mechanisms by which these agencies share information and coordinate their activities. Conversely, "using immigration and border controls to stop terrorists is...a needle-in-a-haystack approach to homeland security." (27)
In a November 6, 2001, opinion piece in the Miami Herald, James Lindsay, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at The Brookings Institution, and Gregory Michaelidis, Senior Policy Analyst at The Hatcher Group, noted several possible measures to enhance border security: better tracking of individuals who overstay their visas, issuing identification documents with biometric information about the holder (such as visas with fingerprints), and better information sharing and coordination among federal agencies and with Mexico and Canada. They also issued a caution:
"Do not blame illegal immigrants for Sept. 11...The vast majority of people who enter the United States illegally are simply looking to improve their lives, not to kill Americans...we can make it harder for terrorists to enter and operate here...without scapegoating immigrants or abandoning the freedoms worthy of a democratic nation." (28)
Former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, now a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a November 2001 policy paper that "prevention is by far the best policy to protect the nation. In the immigration arena, visa screening abroad and admission decisions at international ports of entry are the country's first and most important line of defense." (29) She also cautioned against an overly broad response to the September 11 attacks that runs counter to key U.S. values:
"Immigration lies at the core of our history and national identity, and it is a fact of modern life and global interdependence that represents the lifeblood of our economy and national interest. What we must not do is sacrifice our openness to the world by shutting down immigration, nor relinquish our basic freedoms to elaborate tracking that would, in the end, not combat terrorism effectively." (30)
Attempting to weed out foreign terrorists by trying to close the borders to all immigrants or to those of certain nationalities is akin to never opening your front door for fear that someone might try to rob you. It might provide you with a certain sense of security, but it would not necessarily make it any more difficult for someone to break into your home. Rather than an unfocused and unrealistic attempt to seal off the United States from the rest of the world, a reasoned approach to border security would ensure that appropriate steps are taken quickly when someone who truly is dangerous attempts to enter the country or has already done so. Legalization would be one step in this direction by vastly reducing the "underground" of undocumented immigrants.
Legalization Would Not "Steal" Jobs From the Native-Born, Even During a Recession
The recession that began in the spring of 2001 provided further ammunition to immigration restrictionists who argue that immigrants "steal" jobs from "natives," especially at a time when jobs are increasingly scarce. However, this fails to recognize that the rate of job loss among immigrants during the recession has been even higher than that of natives. (31) Moreover, the labor of the many millions of immigrants still working remains integral to the U.S. economy, even during a recession. (32) As a result, legalization would benefit immigrants who were contributing to the U.S. economy before the recession began and who were disproportionately hurt by its effects. In addition, the demand for immigrant labor will increase again when the recession ends.
A January 2002 report by the Pew Hispanic Center illustrates the degree to which immigrants have been affected by increased unemployment during the recession. The report found that not only were Latinos among the hardest hit, but they will feel the recession's effects longer than the population as a whole. This is due in part to the fact that many Latinos work in manufacturing, which has been hit more severely than many other industries. The report noted that, in December 2001, layoffs in the manufacturing sector accounted for one-fifth of Latino unemployment, as opposed to one-tenth of unemployment for the U.S. population as a whole. (33)
Other statistics demonstrate that the contribution of immigrants to the U.S. economy cannot be dismissed because of a temporary spike in the unemployment rate. A 2001 study by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies estimated that the nation's 19.1 million foreign-born workers comprised 12.8 percent of the total U.S. labor force in 1999 and 2000. (34) The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that in 2001 there were14.7 million Hispanic workers in the United States, including 9.6 million of Mexican origin, spanning all occupational categories. (35) According to a November 26, 2001, story in Fortune Magazine, the "nation's 27.6 million legal immigrants produced an estimated 10% of U.S. GDP [Gross Domestic Product]" in 2000, while undocumented immigrants made an additional contribution of more than $200 billion. (36)
A transitory increase in unemployment does not negate the depth of this economic contribution. The continued importance of immigrants in the U.S. labor force, even in the midst of a recession, was underscored in December 2001 when the AFL-CIO reaffirmed its support of undocumented workers by passing a resolution at its convention in Las Vegas supporting legalization. (37) According to Joel Kotkin, Senior Fellow at Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute for Public Policy and at the Milken Institute, the role played by immigrants in "stimulating local demand" is in fact "helping to stave off the chill of economic hard times" for many businesses and communities around the country. (38) As House Minority Leader Gephardt noted during an interview in late November 2001, "the answer to our economic problems is not to refuse to go along with sensible immigration reform. Many immigrants are still working, paying taxes and are a vibrant part of our economy who have earned this status." (39)
Immigrants, be they undocumented or legally present, were an integral part of the U.S. economy long before the most recent recession and will remain so long after it has passed. It is therefore illogical to argue that the economy would somehow benefit if immigrant communities, that for generations have contributed to the economy with their labor and their taxes, suddenly lost the right to work and live here during a recession. This is particularly true given that immigrants are among those who suffer the most during economic hard times.
Legalization Would Keep Families Together and Improve the Well-Being of U.S.-Citizen Children
Given the family and community ties that bind immigrants together regardless of their legal status, policies that target undocumented immigrants inevitably affect all immigrants and their U.S.-born children and grandchildren. Undocumented immigrants subject to deportation must either leave their U.S.-born children behind or take them to countries they do not know, thereby depriving them of the rights and opportunities they are due as U.S. citizens. Conversely, tightened border security measures implemented since September 11 are discouraging immigrants, legally present and undocumented alike, from returning home. (40)
A study by the Urban Institute of data from the 1998 Current Population Survey found that 85 percent of immigrant families were of "mixed status." That is, families "in which one or more parents is a noncitizen and one or more children is a citizen." Looked at from a different angle, 9 percent of U.S. families with children nationwide were of mixed status. This figure rose to 14 percent in New York and over 25 percent in California. (A 1995 Urban Institute study found that 37.3 percent of New York households headed by undocumented immigrants included at least one "native" and that 18.5 percent of household members - mostly children - were U.S. natives. (41)) As a result, the study concluded, "most policies that advantage or disadvantage noncitizens are likely to have broad spillover effects on the citizen children who live in the great majority of immigrant families." Laws that limit "undocumented immigrants' ability to adjust from illegal to legal status could effectively perpetuate certain mixed-status families" by "freezing a growing number of parents and children into differing statuses." While "policies that make it easier to remove or deport illegal and legal immigrants" might reduce illegal immigration, "they do so at the expense of family unity." (42)
The study also found that mixed-status families "represent 40 percent of low-income families with children in California and 20 percent of such families in New York state" and that roughly "three-fifths of low-income children in Los Angeles and one-third of low-income children in New York City live in mixed-status families." This has particularly important implications for the distribution of welfare benefits to the needy U.S.-citizen children of undocumented immigrants. Because of their parents' illegal status, these children suffer from greatly reduced access to public assistance programs and health insurance coverage to which they are legally entitled. (43)
Legalization would address a significant anti-child, anti-family tendency in current U.S. immigration policy. By preserving the unity of immigrant families, legalization would prevent the U.S.- born children of undocumented immigrants from either being torn from their parents or removed from the country and deprived of their rights as citizens. Legalization therefore represents a humane way to avoid punishing U.S.-citizen children for the undocumented immigration status of their parents.
Legalization Would Not Harm Immigrants Already "Waiting in Line" by "Rewarding Lawbreakers"
A common argument against legalization is that it would reward those immigrants who broke the law by entering undocumented into the United States at the expense of those who "played by the rules," submitted visa applications, and waited their turn in the midst of huge backlogs. However, this argument doesn't consider the heart-wrenching effects of the backlogs that cause many people to choose the riskier path of migrating without documentation. In addition, it incorrectly assumes that a legalization program would be implemented without regard to those who have been "waiting in line."
The limitations placed by current immigration law upon family reunification actually encourage unauthorized immigration. Due to limits imposed on the family-sponsored preference system, which was set at 226,000 for Fiscal Year (FY) 2001, as of December 6, 2001, the spouses and children of lawful permanent residents of the United States faced at least a 5-year wait in reuniting with their loved ones. Mexican residents faced at least a 7-year wait. Waiting times for the brothers and sisters of lawful permanent residents reached more than 20 years in some cases. (44)
Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), ranking Republican on the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, commented during a September 7, 2001, hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee upon the relationship between the immense waiting times and undocumented migration:
"We should open up family and business-based immigration to address presently massive backlogs. Illegal immigration is symptomatic of a system that fails to reunify families and address economic needs in the U.S. To ensure a rational and fair system, we must reduce bureaucratic obstacles and undue restriction to permanent legal immigration." (45)
An effective legalization program would encompass all immigrants who have suffered as a result of unacceptably long backlogs and the unrealistic limits placed upon the family-preference system. Such a program easily could be designed to first benefit those waiting in line and then address the plight of undocumented immigrants.
A Comprehensive Legalization Program Would Not Be A Repeat of the 1986 "Amnesty"
Legalization opponents often point to the 1986 "amnesty" to make the case that legalization only encourages further undocumented immigration. Following the legalization program implemented by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which provided lawful permanent residence to about 3 million immigrants, the 1990s witnessed the largest wave of immigration in U.S. history. (46) However, in contrast with the 1986 law, an effective legalization program would be implemented in conjunction with other policies designed to address the forces that lead to undocumented migration in the first place. This might involve measures such as an expansion in the availability of legal visas for employment and family reunification, and investment in economic development projects in Mexico, particularly in the most impoverished communities from which large numbers of undocumented immigrants originate. (47) The U.S.-Mexico Migration Panel, for instance, recommended in a 2001 study that immigration reform include not only increasing the availability of legal status for undocumented immigrants, but also increasing the availability of work visas, cracking down on immigrant smuggling, and strengthening the Mexican economy, thereby reducing "migration pressures." (48)
In contrast to the one-time opportunity for legalization offered in 1986, policymakers have proposed a gradual process of "earned legalization" though which immigrants could become legal permanent residents of the United States by meeting a combination of qualifying criteria such as years of stable employment and payment of taxes, degree of English proficiency, and the establishment of family and community ties. The Bush administration has discussed the possibility of such a program, under which immigrants would earn "green card points" based on the number of years they have worked and paid taxes in the United States. (49)
Support for an earned legalization program had grown considerably prior to September 11. Senator Brownback stated during a September 7, 2001, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that "we need an earned 'regularization' for undocumented people who work, pay taxes, contribute to their communities, and seek American citizenship. Such people should be given the opportunity to obtain permanent residence, instead of being forced outside the boundaries of the law." (50)
During the same hearing, Thomas Donohue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued that "we believe that those who have already demonstrated their commitment to the United States by living here, working and paying taxes, should have a means by which they can earn permanent residence. There are many possible ways to accomplish this that are being discussed by the policy-makers; but we simply want to ensure that some of our best workers can stay and continue their contributions to their employers and communities." (51)
Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, has proposed a broader immigration reform package that includes raising the caps on family and employment visas (possibly exempting Canada and Mexico from the caps entirely); repealing the 3 and 10-year bars to re-entry to the United States currently imposed on undocumented immigrants; exempting the immediate relatives of legal residents and naturalized citizens from "public charge" requirements in obtaining visas; extending section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), under which some undocumented immigrants can legalize their status while remaining in the United States; and restoring the due process rights that were taken away from immigrants under 1996 laws. (52)
A comprehensive legalization program would establish a legalization process, rather than grant a blanket "amnesty" to however many undocumented immigrants happen to be present in the United States on a particular date. Such a program thus would take account of the economic forces and the family and community ties that drive immigration in the first place. This would likely reduce, not increase, levels of undocumented migration over time
Legalization Would Maintain the Economic Contributions of Undocumented Immigrants
By definition, it is extremely difficult to document the economic contributions of undocumented immigrant workers. However, enough evidence is available to conclude that undocumented immigrants make vital economic contributions in terms of the jobs they fill and the taxes they pay. The strongest evidence of this is found in California, where the largest populations of both undocumented and legal immigrants reside.
Undocumented workers have become an integral part of many industries across the country, including agriculture, textiles, apparel, meatpacking, and poultry processing. (53) An analysis of data from the Department of Labor's National Agricultural Worker Survey by the North American Integration and Development (NAID) Center at the University of California in Los Angeles found that the percentage of undocumented workers in the farm labor force nationwide rose from 17 percent in 1990 to 52 percent in 1998. (54) The National Population Council of Mexico has found that Mexican migrants to the United States are increasingly urban, better educated, settling in states other than California, and employed in the commercial and service sectors of the U.S. economy, as opposed to just agriculture. (55)
An August 2001 NAID Center study estimated that undocumented immigrants from Mexico contributed $154 billion to the U.S. GDP in 2000, including $77 billion to the Gross State Product of California, assuming the presence of 3 million undocumented Mexican immigrants nationwide. Using a higher estimate of 4.5 million undocumented Mexican immigrants, their contribution to the GDP rose to $220 billion. If undocumented Mexican immigrants were to have suddenly disappeared, U.S. economic output would have declined by $155 billion. Moreover, if the United States rather than Mexico had to educate undocumented workers from Mexico, "it would cost the United States more than $17 billion more per year." (56)
Earlier studies reached similar conclusions. The NAID Center and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law estimated that undocumented immigrants contributed about 7 percent, or $63 billion, of California's $900 billion Gross State Product in 1995. In addition, "large parts of California's economy - in particular agriculture and the garment industry - would simply not be viable without undocumented workers." (57) Based on a 1994 survey in Los Angeles County, a University of California study estimated that undocumented workers comprised 19 percent of farm, forestry & fishing workers; 17 percent of construction laborers; 13 percent of machine operators; 10 percent of food service workers; 8 percent of private household workers; 6 percent of cleaning and building maintenance workers; and 6 percent of computer equipment operators. (58)
Undocumented immigrants also contribute billions of dollars in income, property and sales taxes, although it is difficult to quantify the amount. A January 2001 report by the Social Security Administration concluded that undocumented immigrants "account for a major portion" of the more than $20 billion paid to Social Security between 1990 and 1998 that payees can never draw upon because the payments took place under names or Social Security numbers that don't match the agency's records. Such payments totaled almost $4 billion in 1998. (59) The Urban Institute calculated that in 1995 undocumented immigrants in New York alone contributed over $1.1 billion in taxes. (60)
Undocumented immigrants have become indispensable engines of economic growth in many industries and states. Their contributions are amplified due to the fact that most pay taxes but can not receive the benefits for which those taxes pay. This is particularly important in the case of the financially beleaguered Social Security trust fund, upon which so many of us will one day rely.
Legalization Would Maintain the Economic Contributions of Immigrant Families & Communities
Arguments against legalization of undocumented immigrants often overlook the fact that immigrants cannot be neatly divided into those who are undocumented and those who are not. In reality, the lives of immigrants who are undocumented, legal permanent residents, and U.S. citizens are inextricably intertwined through family and community relationships. As a result, it is rather unrealistic to consider the economic contributions of the undocumented apart from the contributions of their legally present relatives.
In this regard, it is important to note that the many studies purporting to calculate the net "costs" of immigrants to the U.S. economy frequently suffer from one or more of three fatal flaws. First, such studies often do not account for the fact that the income levels and, therefore, the tax contributions of costly newcomers increase over time, while their use of public assistance declines. Secondly, these studies often impose a highly artificial distinction between the economic contributions of immigrants and "natives." Defying logic, the studies frequently count as "native" economic contributions the activities of second- and third-generation family members who would not exist if not for their foreign-born parents or grandparents. As a result, more often than not these studies underestimate the economic contributions of immigrant families and communities as a whole. Third, such studies usually rely on comparisons of what immigrants "consume" in public benefits vs. what they pay in taxes, without considering other economic contributions such as consumer buying power and the formation of businesses, both of which create jobs. When these various factors are taken into account, immigrants emerge as net contributors to the U.S. economy.
The National Research Council estimated that immigrants added $14 billion to the GDP in 1997. At an individual level, immigrants contributed about $80,000 per person more in taxes during their lifetimes than they received in public benefits. Specifically, they made a net contribution of $105,000 to the federal government and imposed a net deficit of $25,000 on state and local governments. State and local governments come up short because they are responsible for providing most benefits even though the federal government takes about two-thirds of tax dollars. In addition, state and local governments tend to provide costly benefits early in life (such as education) that are "paid off" later when a person begins working, while the federal government tends to collect taxes first and provide benefits (such as Medicare, Social Security, and pensions) about 30 years later. (61)
A 1998 report by the National Immigration Forum and the Cato Institute concluded that "in their first low-earning years in the United States, immigrants typically are net drains on the public coffers, but over time - usually after 10 to 15 years in the United States - they turn into net contributors." The report found that immigrant households and businesses paid $162 billion in taxes to federal, state, and local governments in 1997. Moreover, given the younger age profile of immigrants, the study estimated that "the total net benefit (taxes paid over benefits received) to the Social Security system in today's dollars from continuing current levels of immigration is nearly $500 billion for the 1998-2022 period." (62) Similarly, a 1994 Urban Institute study found that, between 1970 and 1992, immigrants made a net tax contribution of $25-30 billion. (63) A 2001 report by the Urban Institute also found that "by the second generation, immigrants overall end up doing as well as, or in some instances, better than third generation non-Hispanic white natives in terms of their: educational attainment; labor force participation; wages; and household income." (64)
A January 2001 study by the University of Southern California reached a similar conclusion. According to the study, because "new immigrant arrivals have much higher poverty rates than those residing for more than 10 years, the rapid increase in new arrivals pushed up the overall poverty rates of the foreign born" in California during the 1990s. However, the poverty rate among immigrants in California is already beginning to decline as their income levels rise over time. (65)
An analysis of data from the 1990 Census by the National Immigration Forum revealed more indirect indicators of immigrants' improved standard of living and greater integration into U.S. society over time. The study found that 60.9 percent of immigrants "lived in owner-occupied housing" within 20 years after arriving in the United States; 76.3 percent "spoke English with high proficiency" within 10 years after arriving; and 76.4 percent had become naturalized citizens within 40 years of arrival. (66)
A 1999 report by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) measured the entrepreneurial contribution of immigrants to the U.S. economy. The report found that between 1988 and 1998 the number of "self-employed" Asians increased by 56.5 percent, Hispanics by 30.1 percent, and whites 1.1 percent. Given that whites made up 90.4 percent of the self-employed in 1998, and that the number of self-employed individuals nationwide increased by 3.9 percent, the impact of immigrant entrepreneurs was dramatic. The report also found that between 1987 and 1997 the number of Hispanic-owned businesses increased by 232 percent and Asian-owned businesses by 180 percent. In 1997, Asian-owned businesses generated $275 billion in revenue and employed 1,917,244 people. Hispanic-owned businesses generated $184 billion and employed 1,492,773 people. (67)
Immigrant communities also create jobs through their enormous purchasing power. According to a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, the buying power of Latinos in 2001 stood at $452.4 billion (a 118 percent increase over 1990) and of Asians at $253.8 billion (a 124.8 percent increase over 1990). These figures are based on lower estimates of the immigrant population prior to the 2000 Census, so the true level of purchasing power is no doubt higher. (68)
The importance of immigrant contributions to the U.S. economy has been recognized by prominent individuals not traditionally associated with immigrant advocacy. During questioning before the House Financial Services Committee in July 2001, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan stated:
"I've always argued that this country has benefitted immensely from the fact that we draw people from all over the world. And the average immigrant comes from a less benign environment, and indeed that's the reason they've come here. And I think they appreciate the benefits of this country more than those of us who were born here. And it shows in their entrepreneurship, their enterprise and their willingness to do the types of work that makes this economy function. And I would be very distressed if we were to try to shut our doors to immigration in this country." (69)
A similar point was also made in a January 2000 Washington Times opinion piece by Josette Shiner, president of Empower America, the conservative public policy organization co-founded by 1996 Republican Vice Presidential candidate Jack Kemp. According to Shiner, "the view that the main contribution made by immigrants is stealing menial labor jobs from Americans is simply wrong. More than a third of the high-tech engineers and scientists driving innovation in Silicon Valley today are immigrants." (70)
Immigrants contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy each year through their labor, businesses, taxes, and purchasing power. Without these contributions, many industries, states, and regional economies would be devastated and the financial well-being of the entire nation would suffer. As a result, immigrants have earned the right to build lives in the United States and, when hard times hit, to draw upon the benefits for which their taxes pay.
Legalization Would Improve Wages and Working Conditions
Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse at the hands of unscrupulous employers who use fear of deportation among workers and their family members as a weapon to impose illegally low pay and hazardous working conditions and to disrupt union drives. Legalization would remove this threat, thereby making it more difficult for employers to skirt minimum wage and occupational safety laws. Opponents of immigration, who fear that the proliferation of immigrant workers will precipitate a "rush to the bottom" in terms of wages and working conditions, overlook the fact that legalization of undocumented immigrants would actually favor higher pay and better conditions for all workers in immigrant-heavy industries.
A 2001 report by the NAID Center estimated that the wages of immigrant workers would rise 15 percent following legalization of undocumented immigrants, as occurred following the last legalization program in 1986. This in turn would decrease the demand for immigrant workers, reducing the "pull" of the U.S. labor market for further undocumented migration. The report concluded that a "legalization of both the stock and future flow of migrants would enhance the ability of immigrant workers to assert their rights, join unions, and move across jobs," which would "reduce the demand for total immigration via increases in wages in the traditionally high exploitation labor market segments." (71)
Nowhere would such a result be more welcome than in the agricultural workforce, which in 1998 was 81 percent foreign born, 77 percent Mexican, and 52 percent undocumented. (72) A 2000 Human Rights Watch report found that even immigrant agricultural laborers who are legally present in the United States as "guestworkers" are subject to extremely harsh conditions due to their noncitizen status. According to the report, the average yearly income of an adult farmworker in 1999 was less than $7,500. Agricultural workers also lack health benefits even though they are prone to repetitive motion injuries and illnesses due to pesticide exposure. In addition, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, children as young as 12 years old can work unlimited hours in the fields regardless of whether or not they are U.S. citizens. (73) Legalization of undocumented immigrants would greatly increase the ability of farmworkers to organize and thereby improve their wages and working conditions.
Being an undocumented immigrant in the workplace can also prove fatal. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that Hispanic workers suffered an on-the-job death rate 20 percent higher than that of whites or blacks. From 1996 to 1999, the number of Hispanic construction workers increased by 20-30 percent, while the number who died in workplace accidents rose 68 percent. The undocumented status of many workers was one reason for the more hazardous working conditions and the higher death rate confronted by Hispanic workers. (74)
By removing the threat of deportation from the hands of unscrupulous employers, legalization would enable currently undocumented workers, or those with undocumented immigrant family members, to organize in defense of their rights. This would serve to expand the reach of labor and occupational safety laws, thereby improving the working conditions, standards of living, and opportunities for upward mobility among all workers in industries that employ large numbers of immigrants.
Legalization Would Promote Development and Stability in Mexico and Central America
Legalization would promote economic development and political stability in Mexico and Central America in two ways. First, legalization would forestall the return of undocumented immigrants to countries that lack the jobs and infrastructure to absorb more people. This is particularly important in the case of Central America, where national economies remain in tatters as a result of recent natural disasters and the lingering effects of long civil wars. Secondly, legalization would ensure the continued flow of billions of dollars in remittances sent by immigrants living in the United States to their home countries. Remittances are vital to the economic and political stability of receiving countries. In addition, the investment of these remittances in local economic development projects offers the promise of reducing the dire poverty that causes migrants to leave their homes in the first place. (75)
According to a 2001 report by the Inter-American Development Bank, nations in Latin America and the Caribbean received $20 billion in remittances from immigrants living abroad, primarily in the United States, in 2000 alone. Remittances constituted 17 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in Haiti; 14.4 percent in Nicaragua; 12.6 percent in El Salvador; 11.7 percent in Jamaica; and 10 percent in the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. In Mexico, which accounted for 39 percent of all remittances in the region, remittances totaled $6.8 billion in 1999 and "exceed 160% of the agricultural exports, equal tourism revenues," and "are more than two-thirds of the oil exports." El Salvador received $1.58 billion in remittances in 1999 and "is relying on remittances to sustain its economy." The report estimated that, "at current growth rates, cumulative remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean for the coming decade (2001-2010) will reach more than $300 billion." (76) The Mexican President's Office for Mexicans Abroad estimated that remittances from its immigrants totaled $9.8 billion in 2001. (77)
Legalization Would Bring U.S. Immigration Policy in Line With U.S. Economic Policy
Legalization would also bring consistency to the currently conflicted economic and immigration policies of the United States. U.S. immigration policy has yet to adjust to the fact that U.S. economic policies such as NAFTA have facilitated rapidly growing interdependence between Mexico and the United States. Mexico is now the United States' second-largest trading partner. It is illogical to ease the flow of capital and commodities across borders while trying to prevent the corresponding flow of people. As the experience of the European Union has illustrated, the two go hand-in-hand.
A 2001 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace described this contradiction:
"In a process accelerated by NAFTA, the United States and Mexico have intentionally sought to deepen levels of economic integration and interdependence. However, conflict is generated by the fact that on the one hand, the free flow of capital, goods, and services has been institutionalized and expanded, and on the other hand, the flow of labor has been the subject of massive enforcement efforts and legal restrictions. If the United states and Mexico wish to reduce significantly the strain on their extraordinarily positive progress on integration, they must appreciate that it will be increasingly difficult to be partners on economic issues and antagonists on migration issues." (78)
Similarly, the Director of the Mexican American Studies and Research Center at the University of Arizona argued in a July 26, 2001, opinion piece that
"it is shocking that strong proponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement like Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., and Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, would suggest that any amnesty program rewards 'lawlessness.' After all, their vocal support of NAFTA provided the basis for the flow of free trade in this area, making the border one of the fastest-growing regions for the United States and Mexico. This stimulus provided further pull for Mexicans to migrate north with greater opportunities for employment. Clearly the next logical step in developing NAFTA is to support a free trade policy in U.S. and Mexican labor markets." (79)
Free trade in labor is a natural counterpart to free trade in goods and services. Restrictionist immigration policies that discourage the movement of workers across national borders undermine economic policies designed to increase trade across those same borders. Legalization would be one means of reducing this contradiction between the immigration and trade policies of the United States.
The ongoing discussions between the U.S. and Mexican governments on migration and border issues offer an historic opportunity to reform U.S. immigration policy. A comprehensive legalization program should be an integral part of this reform effort. Despite the dire warnings of opponents, a legalization program for the undocumented would in fact yield benefits at many levels:
- Legalization would enhance national security by bringing undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows";
- Legalization would benefit immigrants who are already productive members of U.S. society and would therefore not result in immigrants "stealing" jobs from the native born;
- Legalization would first help those immigrants trapped in INS backlogs;
- Legalization would preserve family unity and enable the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants to receive the benefits to which they are entitled;
- Legalization would provide legal recognition of the indispensable contributions undocumented immigrants long have made to the United States through their labor, their taxes, their businesses, and their buying power;
- Legalization would elevate wages and working conditions for all workers in numerous industries;
- Legalization would help ensure the stability and development of the nations from which undocumented immigrants come; and
- Legalization would bring harmony to U.S. immigration and economic policies.
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