Hopeful Signs for Immigration Reform This Year

Over the past few days there have been signs, hopeful signs, that Washington just might take up immigration reform this fall.  NDN recently released a report, Making the Case for Passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform This Year, which succinctly lays out our case for why we should move this year.  Let me review a couple of the key observations - ones that are new to the debate this year:

1) In tough economic times, we need to remove the "trap door" under the minimum wage.

One of the first acts of the new Democratic Congress back in 2007 was to raise the minimum wage, to help alleviate the downward pressure on wages we had seen throughout the decade even prior to the current Great Recession.  The problem with this strategy is that the minimum wage and other worker protections required by American law do not extend to those workers here illegally. With economic times worsening here and in the home countries of the migrants, unscrupulous employers have much more leverage over, and incentive to keep, undocumented workers. With 5 percent of the current workforce - amazingly one out of every twenty workers now - undocumented, this situation creates an unacceptable race to the bottom, downward pressure on wages, in a time when we need to be doing more for those struggling to get by, not less.   

Legalizing the 5 percent of the work force which is undocumented would create a higher wage and benefit floor than exists today for all workers, further helping, as was intended by the increase in the minimum wage two years ago, alleviate the downward pressure on wages for those struggling the most in this tough economy.  

Additionally, it needs to be understood that these undocumenteds are already here and working.  If you are undocumented, you are not eligible for welfare.  If you are not working, you go home.  Thus in order to remove this "trap door," we need to either kick 5 percent of existing American workforce out of the country - a moral and economic impossibility - or legalize them.  There is no third way on this one.   They stay and become citizens or we chase them away. 

Finally, what you hear from some of the opponents of immigration reform is that by passing it all these immigrants will come and take the jobs away of every day Americans.  But again, the undocumented immigrants are already here, working, having kids, supporting local businesses.  Legalization does not create a flood of new immigrants - in fact, as discussed earlier, it puts the immigrant worker on a more even playing field with legal American workers.  It does the very inverse of what is being suggested - it creates fairer competition for American workers not unfair competition.  The status quo is what should be most unacceptable to those who claim they are advocating for the American worker.  

2) In a time of tight budgets, passing immigration reform will bring more money into the Federal Treasury.  

Putting the undocumented population on the road to citizenship will also increase tax revenue in a time of economic crisis, as the newly legal immigrants will pay fees and fines, and become fully integrated into the US tax-paying system.  When immigration reform legislation passed the Senate in 2006, the Congressional Budge Office estimate that accompanied the bill projected Treasury revenues would see a net increase of $44 billion over 10 years. 

3) Reforming our immigration system will increasingly be seen as a critical part of any comprehensive strategy to calm the increasingly violent border region

Tackling the growing influence of the drug cartels in Mexico is going to be hard, cost a great deal of money, and take a long time.  One quick and early step towards calming the region will be to take decisive action on clearning up one piece of the problem - the vast illegal trade in undocumented migrants.  Legalization will also help give these millions of families a greater stake in the United States, which will make it less likely they contribute to the spread of the cartels influence.  

This is certain to come up during President Obama's trip to Mexico this week.  

4) Fixing the immigration system will help reinforce that it is a "new day" for US-Latin American relations.     

To his credit President Obama has made it clear that he wants to see a significant improvement in our relations with our Latin neighbors.  Just as offering a new policy towards Cuba is part of establishing that it is truly a "new day" in hemispheric relations, ending the shameful treatment of Latin migrants here in the US will go a long way to signaling that America is taking its relations with its southern neighbors much more seriously than in the past.  

5) Passing immigration reform this year clears the way for a clean census next year.  

Even though the government is constitutionally required to count everyone living in the United States every ten years, the national GOP has made it clear they will block efforts for the Census to count undocumented immigrants.  Conducting a clean and thorough census is hard in any environment.  If we add a protracted legal and political battle on top - think Norm Coleman, a politicized US Attorney process, Bush v Gore, Tea Parties - the chance of a failed or flawed census rises dramatically.  This of course would not be good for the nation.  

Passing immigration reform this year would go a long way to insuring we have a clean and effective census count next year. 

6) The Administration and Congress will grow weary of what we call  "immigration proxy wars," and will want the issued taken off the table.  

With rising violence in Mexico, and the every day drumbeat of clashes and conflicts over immigration in communities across America, the broken immigration system is not going to fade from public consciousness any time soon.  As it will be front of mind, those on the right, will put this issue on the table in the first place, will continue to try to attach amendments to other bills ensuring that various government benefits are not confered to undocumenteds.  We have already seen battles pop up this year on virtually every major bill Congress has taken up, including SCHIP.  By the fall I think leaders of both parties will grow weary of these proxy battles popping up on every issue and will want to resolve the issue once and for all.  Passing immigration reform will become essential to making progress on other much needed societal goals like moving towards universal health insurance. 

7) Finally, in the age of Obama, we must be vigilant to stamp out racism wherever it appears.  

Passing immigration reform this year would help take the air out of the balloon of what is the most virulent form of racism in American society today - the attacks on Hispanics and undocumented immigrants.  It will be increasingly difficult for the President and his allies to somehow argue that watching Glenn Beck act out the burning alive of a person on the air over immigration, "left leaning" Ed Schultz give air time to the advowed racist Tom Tancredo on MSNBC or Republican ads comparing Mexican immigrants to Islamic terrorists is somehow different from the racially insensitive speech that has gotten Rush Limbaugh kicked off Monday Night Football, or Don Imus kicked off the radio.   

So for those of us who want to see this vexing national problem addressed this year, it has been a very good week.  But we still have a long way to, and a lot
of work ahead of us if we are to get this done this year.