Last year, the battle over immigration reform heated up in Washington and across the na-tion. For 2007, it appears that we have a chance for significant immigration reform which has been long overdue. Apparently, most of the people opposed to revising our current immigration laws believe that illegal immigrants place a strain on state and federal budgets because of the cost to educate their children and provide health care to their fami-lies. Others seem chiefly offended by the fact that some immigrants entered the country without permission to do so. Last year, the House bill for reform contemplated upgrading this transgression from a civil to a federal crime, even going so far as denying immi-grants the opportunity to earn legal status once here and effectively sending millions of illegal immigrants back to their home country – re-gardless of their present circumstances in the United States.
But often overlooked is the fact that immi-grants, even those who are here illegally, make a very real and substantial financial con-tribution to this country. The truth is, taking over 11 million people away from their jobs and families would tear a sizeable hole in the fabric of our economy, and could be particu-larly devastating to the fruit, vegetable and tourist industries, as well as causing employ-ment shortfalls in construction, landscaping, and many service-related fields. This would significantly impact employment availability in states with higher percentages of immi-grants such as California, Texas, New York and Florida. Statistically speaking, immi-grants hold 40 percent of farming, fishing and forestry jobs in the United States, 33 percent of jobs in building and grounds maintenance, 22 percent of food preparation jobs, and 22 percent of construction jobs. More often than not, the jobs they take are the ones Americans have rejected.
What’s more, these workers pay taxes – lots of taxes. Not only do they pay sales tax like any other consumer, the vast majority of undocu-mented workers pay income tax, using fake Social Security numbers that keep them on the books and protect their employers from penal-ty. Unlike the rest of us, however, they cannot collect Social Security and are not eligible for Medicaid. But pay into these systems they do, to the collective tune of more than $7 billion per year. Since the last round of immigration reforms in the 1980s, the amount of unclaimed Social Security tax has more than doubled, to roughly $189 billion—a tidy sum for an other-wise ailing program. Social Security receives such a steady boost from illegal immigrants the agency has come to depend upon it, and now factors into its financial projections earnings from illegal workers, along with employer con-tributions. The agency estimates that were it not for the taxed wages of illegal immigrants, the 75-year projected shortfall in Social Security would be 10 percent higher.
Even so, no one is suggesting that we give these workers a free ride, or turn a blind eye to the fact that they entered our country without permission to do so. Last year, many pro-posals which ultimately stalled in Congress provided for a means of establishing perma-nent legal status by requiring immigrants to document their employment history and show-ing their value to this country. These pro-posed paths to permanent residency would also be paved with lengthy security checks, demonstrating a mastery of the English lan-guage, and showing an understanding of civ-ics and government process. Additionally, the proposed legislation called for some immi-grants to pay fines for having entered the country illegally. Once these hurdles had been cleared, and permanent status earned, they would then have to wait an additional five years before applying for citizenship.
Opponents of reform often question why im-migrants do not initially follow legal channels to obtain temporary worker status or perma-nent residency. The reason is simple: either no such program exists or it takes too long to complete the process. Contrary to popular opinion, people wishing to enter this country to obtain full-time jobs have very restricted options for doing so. Permanent worker visas are available, but only to a scant few, and most of these require extremely high educa-tional or skill levels. Temporary worker visas are somewhat more available, but they do no good for those immigrants who are already here illegally. If a person wants to immigrate to this country through a family member, he or she can expect to wait an average of 10-20 years before being able to do so lawfully. No one has this kind of time.
These are the facts. Immigrants are here; they are contributing to our economy, to our tax base, and to our culture. They consist of workers and family members who are simply trying to build better lives and futures for themselves and their children. Sending them home and building fences to keep them out are steps that may ap-pease some, but simply fail to serve our national interests. What does serve our interests is find-ing an appropriate means to penalize through fines those who have entered the country with-out permission, establishing legal avenues for those who wish to come here to work, and pav-ing a path to permanent residency for those who are already here or who want to come and build a future. If the inflexible restrictions for lawful immigration existing today had been in place even as little as 50-100 years ago, many of us would not be here, or would find ourselves in the exact same situation most immigrants are in now.
With a new Congress, we are hopeful for pas-sage of meaningful immigration reform which will realistically address the de facto immigra-tion situation in the United States. The fact is that a substantial percentage of our national work force is here illegally, yet is fulfilling the employment needs of our country. Moreover, there are many families here who would be torn or ripped apart by some of the proposed legisla-tion from last year. True and meaningful immi-gration reform would place reasonable re-strictions on who could enter this country lawfully, provide for more readily available and attainable work permits, and address those im-migrants already here leading productive lives and providing valuable services to our country’s economy, social and cultural diversity. We en-courage all readers of this article to become more proactive in immigration reform and one of our New Year’s Resolutions is to be more active ourselves. This article is simply a first step; throughout this year, we will author addi-tional articles addressing some of the issues immigrants are facing today along with potential solutions and things that we all can do to en-courage effective immigration reform.
Originally Published: La Voz del Latino, 2007
The information provided in this column is for general information purposes only, and is not intended to constitute legal advice.
If you have specific legal questions, you are encouraged to contact an attorney.