June 11 2004

Commentary

The Immigrant Contribution

By Congressman Ciro D. Rodriguez
Chair, Congressional Hispanic Caucus

 

The debate over our nation’s immigration policy and need for reform has gone from legislative offices and Washington think tanks to kitchen tables across the nation. Different views on various plans are expressed, placing family members, lawmakers and academics on different sides of the issue.

And though Americans have been inundated with statistics on the costs of immigration and heard political rhetoric from both parties on the best solution for reform and how best to handle future immigration flows. However, absent from the discussions are the significant economic benefits that the new immigrant contribute. The National Immigration Forum (NIF) and the Urban Institute, leading advocacy and think tank groups, have done extensive studies on this issue.

According to NIF, in 2000, immigrants made up approximately 11 percent of the American population, and 5 percent of the workforce, or approximately 6 million workers. These statistics mean that one out of every two new workers between 1990 and 2000 was a new immigrant, with half of all new workers who entered during the economic expansion of the 90’s were foreign born.

The majority of these workers fill hard labor positions for low wages and long hours. Though some anti-immigration proponents have attempted to lessen the value of the immigrant worker to the economy by pointing out the low-wages they make, without the contribution of immigrant labor, U.S. goods and services would be at least $1 trillion less. At a time when our national debt, recently estimated at over $7 trillion, may exceed our gross domestic product, to maintain our country’s economic viability we must utilize all our resources to create a strong workforce.

And the benefits of immigrant workers are not confined to historically immigrant occupied states, such as California, Texas and Arizona. States like Georgia, Nebraska, and Idaho have seen significant growth in their immigrant population. These states have already begun to see economic progress associated with the immigrant worker.

The Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) are constant proponents of open discussion on immigration reform and the benefits of immigrants to our economy. We have supported progressive reform that recognizes the contributions of immigrants but remains respectful of the American worker.

One example of legislative action, supported by the CHC, is the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003. This bi-partisan legislation gives willing American workers a system that puts them first, but is fair to those immigrant agricultural workers in our fields. Those who have been working for an extended length of time, contributing to our economy would have the opportunity to apply for adjusted legal status. And without labor protections and the looming fear of deportation, many abused workers have no recourse; this bill covers these vulnerable workers under U.S. labor laws.

Another bill supported by members of the CHC protects the jobs of Americans first and foremost, but also recognizes the fact that we can no longer force immigrant workers into the shadows. The S.O.L.V.E. Act (The Safe, Orderly, Legal Visas & Enforcement Act), introduced by Congressmen Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), reunites families, rewards hard work and reinforces national security, while ensuring that Americans have the first opportunity to get and keep American jobs.

We must work together to address America’s economic issues and decide how the growing immigrant population fits into the solution. No longer can anti-immigrant proponents claim that immigrants are a drain on our national economy. Immigrants work hard, pay taxes and are only seeking to provide a better life for their children - the same thing Americans are working for.

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