In the upcoming weeks, you will repeatedly hear the words “illegal immigrants” and phrases like “they’re breaking the law” from some members of Congress to justify why we have tolerated a sub-society of second-class people working for substandard wages, living in substandard housing, and when injured on the job, refused medical care. We have allowed undocumented workers to be exploited for many years because their “shadow” communities have given us inexpensive goods and services. These jobs come at a cost to all because these workers perform jobs with low wages and without basic rights to decent working conditions.
Recently, Congress introduced a comprehensive immigration bill that streamlines the immigration process by providing a gateway to citizenship. Immigrant children living in the U.S. before the age of 16, who clear security and criminal background checks, and who pass general education requirements including English and civics, will be given an earned pathway to citizenship through education, community service or military service.
Undocumented immigrant families pay sales taxes, gasoline taxes and whether they rent or own their homes, property taxes. These taxes have contributed to the payment of public services.
Notwithstanding the human interest, there are economic reasons to grant earned immigration status. The U.S. workforce has aged. New citizens can help pay social security and Medicare benefits for the baby boomers now retiring from our workforce. In addition, we must act now to bring back many jobs that were shipped overseas so our country can be self sufficient rather than rely on foreign countries. Consequently, together with immigration reform, Congress must implement policies that create good-paying jobs for our unemployed and those it seeks to immigrate to carry our nation forward far into the future.
Naturally, the proposed bill contemplates costly “tough” enforcement methods with an employer verification provision that creates significant civil and criminal penalties for employers. Additionally, the bill targets human trafficking, gun and drug smuggling crimes, and provides for compensation to border states that incur costs for prosecuting federal crimes. Some say we need even tougher border enforcement and longer prison sentences.
Clearly, Mexico must step up to the plate and respect our border. While some amount of border “protection” may be necessary, what is also clear is that U.S. tougher border enforcement will result in higher taxes to support an already overcrowded prison system. There is a finite amount of taxpayer dollars. We must be honest and acknowledge that border “policing,” “security” and “prisons” are a substantial taxpayer drain but do not produce any gross domestic product. We should therefore remove the rhetoric and be open to examining all solutions.
Unfortunately, the “reform” bill fails to address the major cause of illegal immigration. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about three-quarters of the nation’s undocumented immigrants are Hispanic, 59% originating from Mexico. Some economists say that NAFTA hurt Mexican farmers. Others say that Mexico’s protection of certain industries resulted in its lack of economic growth. We need not find blame to look for solutions. U.S. companies that do business in Mexico do not even pay minimum wage to their Mexican workers. Simply doing this would help establish a middle class in Mexico.
America’s immigration policy must be tied to a fair, strong, and effective foreign and economic development policy with Mexico, built on equal partnership. If we are to solve this problem, the U.S. must find a way to insure that Mexico deals with its economic problems related to poverty, employment, healthcare, drug corruption, and democratic governance because unless we change our strategy, our immigration dilemma will continue with or without “immigration reform.”
Real solutions begin by creating a middle class with good-paying jobs which build strong communities. If we do not encourage economic justice by building a middle class in Mexico and Central America where 95% of the wealth is held by 2% of the population, we will never solve the problem.
Ask yourself this question. How long would you watch your family starve before you would leave your home and walk 3,000 miles to get a job for which you risked death and live in fear of deportation. This is the question that many of our neighbors to the south ask themselves everyday.
Tracy Emblem is an attorney in Southern California