The New America Alliance (NAA), with many other Latino public interest groups, convened a historic conference, assembling experts and leaders, to discuss the issues affecting Latinos in America and how the Latino community can contribute to moving America forward to achieve its full potential.
With the presidential election campaign for 2012 well underway, there is understandably much discussion about whether America is on the right path and how the country will face and resolve the serious economic and security challenges in the 21st century. The American Latino community will play a major role in America's future success - a group that accounts for almost 17% of the population and, according to the Census Bureau, will grow to be approximately 19% of the population by 2020 and over 120 million by 2050. In this century, for America to succeed, Latinos in America must succeed.
One of the greatest challenges facing Latinos and preventing America from achieving its economic potential is the broken immigration system. Sadly, achieving sensible immigration reform has become almost impossible because of overheated rhetoric and a refusal to engage in crafting a solution by conservative political leaders. The debate over immigration reform has reached such negative levels that all Latinos in America, citizens included, have been victims of misinformation and anti-immigrant stereotypes.
Achieving sensible immigration reform will require an effort to win hearts and minds. Clearly, educating and dispelling prevalent false stereotypes will be necessary. It is especially important to engage with local groups who fear immigrants and who may be misinformed. Secondly, and perhaps most critical, there must be a way to influence political leaders in Congress to engage and to pass legislation to fix immigration.
It would be useful to eliminate from the discussion many of the myths and misinformation about immigrants. Indeed, the most prevalent anti-immigrant stereotype against Latinos is as follows: the immigrant is characterized as Mexican and illegal, who "steals" a job from native worker, drives down wages and places costs upon American society. Evidence however, shows that this stereotype is simply wrong. For example, immigrants cannot be blamed for either high unemployment or low wages. Empirical research has demonstrated repeatedly that there is no correlation between immigration and unemployment. Instead, immigrants, even the undocumented, create jobs by their spending and through their high level of entrepreneurship. Immigrants buy millions of dollars of goods and services from U.S. businesses, which also sustain and create jobs. Immigrants also do not compete with native-born workers since they are not competing in the same job markets, have different levels of education, and work in different occupations and places. Studies also consistently show that immigrants contribute more in tax revenue (payroll taxes for instance) than they use in government services.
Ironically, there is virtually no dispute that America needs highly skilled foreign born workers for Silicon Valley and lower skilled foreign born workers for such industries as agriculture, food and hospitality, and health care. Most also agree that guest workers are needed for seasonal and temporary work. Failure to secure these workers costs the U.S. billions of dollars a year and threatens the nation's ability to create tomorrow's new jobs and technologies. Accordingly, there is a business imperative to have an immigration system that supplies badly needed workers for American businesses to operate successfully.
Perhaps the toughest challenge of immigration reform is what to do with the "undocumented" population of about 12 million that has integrated into the U.S. economy and society, including their children who were born outside the U.S. - the so called "Dreamers." President Obama's new Executive Order called "Deferred Action", intends to remove the fear of deportation for Dreamers and their families. Although much appreciated, Deferred Action is only an interim solution, leaving the need to enact federal legislation. However, Congress seems incapable of developing a federal solution.
Remarkably, there is wide consensus on how to solve U.S. immigration. Polls consistently demonstrate wide public support for immigration reform, including measures that would allow some illegal immigrants to remain in this country. President Obama and his Administration support comprehensive immigration reform and on the White House website invites discussion and partnerships to address immigration.
Given the political standoff, many public interest groups have scaled back their goals and would accept a pared down comprehensive immigration reform that has some of the following elements, 1) a legalization program for undocumented immigrants (possibly without a path to citizenship), 2) a working immigration system that makes it easier for low and high skill workers to enter and meet business needs, and 3) federal enforcement that keeps communities safe. The Administration has also proposed continued vigilance in securing the borders and holding employers accountable for making meaningful checks of employee applicant status through improved verification systems. Any possible path to citizenship for the undocumented living in the U.S. would involve penalties and sanctions (so that it is not amnesty) and being placed "at the back of the line" in which many years would pass before receiving citizenship consideration. Many advocates are now willing to do piecemeal legislation, dealing with one aspect of immigration at a time - e.g., the Dream Act, agriculture workers, visa reform.
Any serious discussion of how to achieve immigration reform has to deal with the political reality (the elephant in the room) that exists today. As stated by Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, to The Arizona Republic: "What's missing is the Republicans." Democrats as a group have been open to creating an acceptable reform of the immigration system. In contrast, Republicans' discussion of immigration reform often begins and ends with the statement that you must first have secure borders and stop the large flow of undocumented immigrants.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R) generously spoke at a previous New America Alliance Summit in Washington in an open discussion about immigration with Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. In response to the question of borders, Senator Graham replied that he would consider the borders secure when border state governors like Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona said that the borders were secure. Many in the audience responded, "by that definition, the borders will never be secure." Senator Graham also candidly added that his constituents, lacking a large Hispanic population, were more concerned about avoiding the need to do immigration reform every 10 years to legalize the latest immigrant arrivals. Clearly, Republicans in Congress view immigration reform as a losing proposition with their base.
Therefore, to fix the immigration system, Republicans must be persuaded to support reasonable reform of immigration. This can only happen if important constituencies pressure Republicans in Congress to change their attitudes and ultimately their votes. One of those constituencies has to be the U.S. business community. The enormous costs of a broken immigration system are most immediately paid by businesses that need skilled and lower skilled workers. Many business leaders have not wanted to get involved in the political fighting and risk retaliation and boycotts by different players. However, the price is now too high to sit on the sidelines. The business community has many associations and organizations that could offer political cover. Indeed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has often stated it supports immigration reform. It would be necessary for the business community to "get tough" with Members of Congress who are unwilling to be part of a negotiated solution. Perhaps a prominent figure, possibly a retired executive, could be a spokesperson for business to advocate for immigration reform.
The other constituency that could influence conservative Republicans are religious faith leaders. Evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, Jewish and others groups are all united in seeking justice and fairness for immigrants. Indeed, much of the growth in religious groups in recent years has come from immigrants, who add vitality and tithing to congregations.
Consider what a determined and resolute coalition, led by business and religious leaders, could accomplish by making unequivocal demands of Congress to produce meaningful immigration reform.
These ideas and many others were discussed at the inaugural American Latino National Summit. It is the goal of the members of the New America Alliance to encourage experts and leaders to go beyond discussion, and to articulate specific actions and plans that will lead to solutions to the large challenges facing the nation and the Latino community. Together, through these efforts, we will succeed in creating a better America.