May 1, 2009

Commentary:

Immigration: An American Priority

By Janet Murguía


Americans are in the midst of difficult times. Each evening, the news brings stories of foreclosures, job losses, and a failing stock market into our homes. It is hard to escape the serious realities that our nation faces. With such a troubled economy making headlines every day, many would say that this is a bad time to try addressing another crisis that has affected our country for decades: immigration reform.

Yet immigration reform is essential to economic recovery, our values as a nation, and restoring the rule of law. We can’t deport 12 million people, and leaving them in the shadows undermines our economy and the rule of law. Bringing them into the system would help end the demonization of immigrant families, create a level playing field for the American worker, lift wages, and increase tax revenues. The estimated government tax revenue of legalizing this population would be between $48 and $66 billion.

Currently, our nation’s immigration system is rigged for exploitation. Legal channels to immigration are blocked, pushing countless people seeking entry outside the system. As undocumented workers, these individuals are then exploited by unscrupulous employers, a situation that affects all.

We’ve spent millions of dollars on detention and deportation without making a dent in the problem—we end up chasing dishwashers and cooks rather than hardened criminals. Deportation is a simply a false solution; it would take 40 years to deport everyone who is here without documents.

We cannot maintain the status quo because that would be an assault on our nation’s values. We have seen U.S. citizens racially profiled. SWAT-like teams descend on the homes of suspected undocumented families. Men, women, and children with no criminal records have been locked up with hardened criminals for committing a civil offense. Perhaps worst of all, families are being torn apart—it is estimated that more than 300,000 children have been tragically affected.

U.S. history is riddled with the demonization, exploitation, and persecution of immigrants and minorities. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. Most of the undocumented people living in this country have worked hard, paid taxes, lived productive lives, and been good neighbors. Many are people of faith. Many have children serving in our nation’s defense. Many have spouses and children who are U.S. citizens.

We must restore the rule of law by enacting comprehensive, practical solutions rather than putting forth piecemeal approaches. We need to bring order to the border by engaging in smart enforcement — better policing it in collaboration with our neighbors, providing the training, technology and resources needed, and taking into account the input of those who live in our border communities. We need to enforce our labor laws and protections, and crack down on unscrupulous employers who cheat the system, workers, and us all. And we need to create a legal means of entry for families and future needed workers that is in synch with our values.

Americans voted for change, and the urgency is clear: there is an economic, moral, and practical imperative for us to do right by all who live in this country. We need determined elected leaders to achieve reform this year. Our community stands at the ready to make change happen.

Janet Murguía is President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.

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