This election cycle, immigration reform has waxed and waned as a central campaign issue. In recent weeks, the party conventions and coverage of candidate gaffes has taken precedence over most other issues, including immigration reform and the economy. But immigration remains, I believe, one of our country’s most pressing policy issues.
Both parties have seriously flawed views over how to solve the illegal immigration problem. Conservatives — many, but not all — tend to support “self-deportation” laws like those implemented in Arizona and Alabama. These laws try to make life as hard as possible for illegal immigrants. The expectation is that undocumented immigrants will then find life in the United States unbearably hard and decide to return to their home countries.
Even the Obama administration has pursued policies that allow local law enforcement agencies to take matters into their own hands, which, in the case of one North Carolina county, has led to rampant racial profiling and other questionable police practices.
To be fair to Obama, he does support the DREAM Act legislation that would grant permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools. He effectively enacted this legislation through a highly contested executive order. This legislation is on the right track, but there are plenty of undocumented immigrants who are well above high school age and who did not graduate from U.S. high schools.
My view on immigration reform is simple and, surprisingly, radical: complete amnesty for all current undocumented immigrants and new border policies that expand and streamline legal immigration. The “illegal immigration” problem is a problem in name only. The United States has created this problem for itself by mucking up the pathways to legal immigration. With the road to legal immigration effectively closed off, immigrants wishing to enter the United States unsurprisingly choose to enter illegally.
The economics of this phenomenon are fairly simple: the United States is incredibly wealthy and Mexico is fairly poor. Immigrants come here to take advantage of employment opportunities and the prospect of better lives for themselves and their children. As long as the opportunity gap between Mexico and the United States is so stark, there will always be masses of people wanting and willing to move into the U.S., legally or illegally.
So-called “self-deportation” laws will be mostly ineffective against illegal immigration. True, some undocumented immigrants will be discouraged and return to their home countries, but for most of them, the added burden will still not eclipse the economic gains of staying in the United States.
Granting amnesty to all undocumented immigrants and streamlining the process to legal immigration also makes complete economic sense. According to a Washington Post editorial, “Undocumented workers comprise more than 5 percent of America’s labor force and much more in agriculture, hospitality, landscaping and elsewhere.”
Undocumented immigrants work. In states such as California and Texas, especially, undocumented immigrants do much of the leg work — cleaning, serving, cooking, gardening, mowing, etc. — that keeps our economy humming. For their willingness to work, they should be rewarded with a chance at gaining legal residency and, eventually, full American citizenship.
Few dispute the economic realities of immigration, so why do states keep passing draconian anti-immigration measures? Support for these laws is tinged with xenophobia and, in many cases, outright racism. How can Romney’s call to “keep America American” be seen as anything other than an attack on America’s growing nonwhite population, many of whom have entered this country illegally? This fearful sentiment leads states like Alabama, which did not have a significant number of undocumented immigrants, to pass inhuman, hateful and economically-damaging laws.
America’s demographics are quickly changing. In the next few decades, the country will become a “majority-minority,” where the nonwhite population will comprise over half of all residents. Those worried about this trend will need to overcome their personal biases and accept demographic and economic realities.
America is a desirable place to live. We who are privileged enough to be here already have no right to deny others the same chance at a better life. Grant amnesty, open pathways to legal citizenship and our society will continue to prosper, both economically and culturally.