With President Obama ready to unveil parts of his immigration reform measures this week, he is likely to call for increased visas for graduates with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math. Obama advocated immigration reform in his inauguration speech, during which he said: "Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country."
Yet Obama must also cease the deportation of laborers in low-wage sectors, who he has deported in record numbers. Not only is it wrong for us to tear apart families and deport these undocumented workers, it also threatens our fragile economy as these workers are the economic backbone of our nation. Instead of deportation, all undocumented workers deserve a feasible path towards obtaining legal status.
Most economists agree that their cheap labor results in a net benefit to the U.S. economy. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told the U.S. Senate in 2009 that undocumented immigrants have "made a significant contribution to the growth of our economy." The Southern Poverty Law Center reports, "In addition to their labor, each year undocumented immigrants contribute as much as $1.5 billion to the Medicare system and $7 billion to the Social Security system, even though they will never be able to collect retirement benefits."
Undocumented workers earn some of the lowest wages in our country. Moreover, the corporations employing them profit by not having to pay undocumented workers health and sometimes from paying them below minimum wage. Undocumented workers are the staples of our agricultural, restaurant, landscaping, hospitality, and housekeeping industries. Yet they remain social pariahs for a significant number of political candidates and voters.
While canvassing in Pennsylvania for President Obama this past fall, I spoke with an undecided voter who brought up the issue of "illegal aliens," a topic that came up often during the election. The voter complained about immigrants who know "exactly what they are entitled to" before coming to the United States. What isn't acknowledged in the midst of the "illegal alien" rhetoric is that undocumented workers are a major driving force in the United States' economy, enabling consumers to purchase low-cost food and corporations to make record profits.
Mitt Romney referred to undocumented workers as "illegals" during the debates, a derogatory term for some of the United States' hardest workers. Hermain Cain, who received significant support among Republicans during their primaries, even spoke of an electric fence that could electrocute immigrants attempting to enter our borders illegally.
As a caseworker, I met an undocumented man from the West Indies who is losing his sight. Despite having been undocumented in the United States for 24 years, I have yet to meet someone who loves America more than he does. Before going blind he self-published a book comprised of poems he composed about every U.S. president. He is homeless and left the shelter he was staying in because other occupants targeted him for being disabled. Like other undocumented immigrants, he cannot apply for welfare, unemployment, disability, Medicare, or food stamps due to his immigration status. Before Hurricane Sandy, he was sleeping on subway cars. When the trains were evacuated before the storm, he had nowhere to go. Like countless other undocumented immigrants, catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy demonstrate the difficulty undocumented immigrants face in accessing the services they so desperately need because they fear deportation.
However, Marco Rubio's team has announced that a group of bipartisan senators have decided that undocumented immigrants on temporary work visas will not be able to receive federal assistance either.
The irony is that the drastic measures taken in 2011 to curb illegal immigration in Georgia and Alabama resulted in billions of dollars in lost revenue after harsh immigration measures were passed to address unemployment. Georgia's immigration law resulted in a farmhand labor shortage, forcing farmers to leave millions of dollars' worth of blueberries, onions, melons and other crops rotting in the fields, causing great economic losses to Georgia's agricultural sector, the state's largest industry.
Alabama's farm owners also struggled to find an adequate workforce to replace
its undocumented workers. Alabama's law made it a felony to transport undocumented
immigrants or provide them with shelter, causing an exodus out of the state of most of Alabama's undocumented workers. Farmers reported that most U.S.-born workers did not want to perform the tedious labor or accept the low pay migrants earn, leaving farmers unable to harvest all of their crops. Neither Alabama nor Georgia saw significant improvements in their unemployment rates since passing their harsh immigration laws. And when violent tornados tore through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in April 2011, causing widespread devastation, building firms said they struggled to employ enough people for rebuilding following the exodus of undocumented Latinos from the state.
University of Alabama research economist Samuel Addy estimated Alabama's GDP
reduction ranging from $2.3 billion to $10.8 billion following the exodus of most of the
state's undocumented immigrants. The economic effects that resulted were a loss of state
income and sales tax collection ranging from $56.7 million to $264.5 million and a
reduction of local sales tax revenues estimated between $20 million and $93.1 million.
It is unrealistic to think that if we deport undocumented workers, national unemployment
rates will improve. As as a report of The Immigration Policy Center
explains, "The notion that unemployed natives could simply be "swapped" for
employed unauthorized immigrants is not valid economically. In reality, native workers
and immigrants workers are not easily interchangeable. Even if unemployed native
workers were willing to travel across the country or take jobs for which they are
overqualified, that is hardly a long-term strategy for economic recovery."
The Immigration Policy Center's stance is that "Removing millions of unauthorized workers, taxpayers, and consumers from our fragile economy would only make matters worse." Additionally, studies have found that U.S. border regions experienced no significant increase in wages after stricter border enforcement legislation was passed.
President Obama's reelection was due in part to Latino voters, 70 percent of whom voted for him.
Obama gained support from passing the DREAM Act with an executive order in June 2012 after a Republican-led House voted it down. As a candidate, Mitt Romney vowed to veto the bill. Nevertheless, President Obama's record on illegal immigration has been misguided and has drawn the ire of immigration rights activists and liberals alike. Since 2009, President Obama has deported 1.5 million undocumented immigrants -- that is more than Presidents Clinton and Bush combined.
The Secure Communities Program was introduced by George W. Bush, who deported 1.5 million undocumented immigrants during his entire eight years in office. President Obama has deported a record number of undocumented immigrants under the program; deporting 409,849 undocumented immigrants in the 2012 fiscal year alone.
The Secure Communities program is especially repressive and widely debilitating for undocumented workers and their families because it has picked up people for driving violations or driving without a license, whereas in some states it is illegal for undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver's license. Thirty-nine percent of individuals arrested by the Secure Communities program reported a spouse or child who is a U.S. citizen; approximately 88,000 families have been negatively impacted by Secure Communities. Although President Obama vowed to target criminals and not break up families, 5,100 U.S.-born children have been placed in foster care as a result of Obama's immigration policies, while others are being raised by relatives as parents without criminal records wait in detention centers or are sent back to their countries of origin.
Nevertheless, Republicans allege that President Obama has not done enough by way of
deportations. Representatives Steve King (R-Iowa) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas) have criticized the Obama Administration for not deporting all undocumented immigrants, including those who are highly skilled and have not been convicted of criminal offenses, decrying this giving "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants. The Republican platform called for nationwide "Arizona-style immigration laws", referring to the law allowing police officers to pull over and check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is not a citizen.
President Obama has described this law as an attack on civil rights and his administration brought the state of Arizona to court over the state's immigration policy.
The Republican Party is advocating for our country to further criminalize workers "whose only crime is that they are working to support their families," explains Rob Williams, who represents The United Farm Workers Union, the union founded by Cesar Chavez. "There isn't anybody out there that isn't eating food that has been produced by these workers." How can the deportation of over one and a half million people be called too lenient when it has torn apart countless families with foreign-born parents and U.S.-born children?
Citizenship for undocumented immigrants who did not enter the U.S. before adulthood or who do not have advanced diplomas may entail fines, English tests and "going to the back of the line" under Obama's push for immigration reform. Why would
undocumented workers, many of whom are oftentimes barely scraping by in the service industry, farming, and other low-wage sectors voluntarily apply for legal citizenship if they know that they will be fined, not to mention have a long path to citizenship ahead of them?
Political analysts -- and Republicans themselves -- agree that Republicans' rhetoric and policies must change if the party can hope to win the Latino vote in future elections. In his second term, President Obama must drastically change his administration's deportation policies and work towards a comprehensive, and fair, path to citizenship for undocumented workers.