For Sake of Economy, We Must Change Focus
Immigration, both legal and illegal, is having a significant effect on our economy and society.
As a percent of the total population, immigrants represent the highest level in 80 years. In absolute numbers, more than 10 million immigrants have arrived since 2000, the highest seven-year increase in U.S. history. Of this number, more than half are estimated to have immigrated illegally.
Mexico and Central American countries are the primary points of origin of illegal immigrants. Yet immigrant populations have been a major source of the workers and the population needed to support continued economic growth at various points in our history, including today.
What makes the current surge of immigration problematic is not simply the sheer numbers but also the low education and skill levels, and the resulting demand on the education and social services infrastructure of states and local communities.
Poverty and near-poverty rates among immigrants is double that of the native population. And it is estimated that it takes almost 30 years for the average immigrant to close this gap in income status. We know from history that the concentration of large numbers of people at very low income levels creates significant social problems, both now and well into the future. What should be done?
-- First, legal immigration policy must be refocused from social goals to labor-market goals.
Under current policy, more than 70 percent of legal immigrants are admitted under the family unification criterion, which has no bearing on their skills and ability to fill jobs in which there is a shortage of qualified workers. While family unification is an important social goal, current provisions are too broad, allowing admission of relatives beyond the spouse and non-adult children.
A stronger focus on the use of legal immigration to fill skills shortages, and specifically higher skill shortages, would facilitate more efficient operation of the labor market, including allowing wages to rise to attract more resident workers and reduce the income disparities that currently exist within our population.
-- Second, temporary guest worker programs, if used, must be limited and strongly regulated.
Such programs have been riddled in the past by employer abuse, both regarding the need for and treatment of workers. The programs should be limited to industries, such as agriculture, that have a clear seasonality element regarding the need for workers.
-- Third, workplace enforcement of immigration law must be strengthened.
While increased resources should be added to border control, research has clearly shown that the real magnet behind illegal immigration is the availability of employment. Responsibilities and requirements for employers to verify eligibility of job applicants to work should be explicit, and financial penalties and sanctions for violations of these requirements should be increased.
Similarly, the process for deportation of illegals must be both fair and timely. To facilitate compliance by employers and a fair process for workers, we should move forward with development of a counterfeit proof worker identity card.
-- Fourth, amnesty has been shown over the last 40 years to be an ineffective response to illegal immigration.
Individuals who migrate illegally should expect that they will be returned to their home country. Doing otherwise denies the rights of those who are following the legal process.
However, it is impractical to deport the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here; and, for those who have a steady work record, have become established in a community, and otherwise played by the rules, such action is not really in the historic spirit of the U.S.
The solution, as proposed in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 -- supported by both presidential candidates -- is a temporary visa that would provide time to pay a fine and back taxes and go through the legal process of earning citizenship.
-- Finally comes the issue of services to the children of illegal immigrants.
As a society, we will make a huge mistake by denying educational opportunities at any level. The relationship between educational achievement and income -- and being a net financial contributor or drain on society -- is well documented.
Many countries, including the U.S., have experienced the downstream social costs of creating an underclass of low-wage workers, mostly immigrants, and not providing sufficient advancement opportunities for their offspring.
Research studies estimate that by refocusing immigration policy on higher skilled labor market needs and restricting the family unity criterion to the nuclear, not extended family, will reduce the annual level of immigration by 50 percent. Stronger workplace enforcement will eliminate many of the employment opportunities that illegal immigrants have been able to access.
But we must remember that what has distinguished us and drawn many immigrants is being the land of opportunity. If we want to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, we must work to improve the economic conditions in our neighboring countries that drive their residents to our border.
Brian Deaton, chairman of the Moore County Democratic Party, lives in Pinehurst.
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