A Complex Challenge and No Easy Answers
Second in a Series
This is the second in a series in which Moore County's Republican and Democractic party chairmen will address various political issues. The issue the two tackle is immigration. For Moore County Republican Party Chairman Robert Levy's response click here.
Ours is a nation of immigrants. That’s what we’re told from our earliest years in grade school. The vast majority of Americans are descended from those who came (voluntarily or not) from other continents.
But the topic remains controversial. And immigration both legal and not is changing the American landscape. Demographers tell us that by 2050, the proportion of Hispanics in the U.S. will more than double to 29 percent, making them the largest segment after whites at 47 percent.
As a nation, we must carefully consider how to best cope with such a dramatic change.
Immigration is a complex issue and a vital one for all of us. Immigrants are a significant part of our economic engine. Such multi-billion-dollar companies as Intel, Sun Microsystems, eBay, Yahoo! and Google were founded by immigrants. This country is a magnet for talented students who come from around the world to study at our universities and often choose to stay here to work. As part of the global economy, our success depends on both domestic and foreign talent.
While there are several areas that merit consideration, such as the patchwork quota system and the H1-B non-immigrant visa, which allows a company to employ a foreign national for a limited time (and which is being targeted for potential abuse by employers), the issue of undocumented migrants is drowning out all other immigration discussions.
Residents of North Carolina who lack documentation are estimated to amount to about 3 percent of the state’s population. Nationwide, the total number is probably around 12 million. Their presence has energized opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. The law-and-order right is incensed that there is a sizable group flouting our laws. Labor unions on the liberal side fret that jobs are being taken away and wages of our lowest paid are being lowered further by the competition. The reality lies somewhere between.
Those on the right (not least the tea partiers) would have us deport all undocumented people. A recent report by the Center for American Progress estimates that the roundup and transfer would cost $285 billion over five years and add $922 in new taxes for every American.
In a paper published earlier this year, UCLA professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda calculated that if undocumented immigrants were removed from America’s economy, our GDP would be reduced by $2.6 trillion over 10 years. So we are looking at increasing our taxes significantly and hobbling our economy’s growth. There’s not a lot to recommend that option.
Add to that the many cases each year of American citizens being wrongly deported. Here in North Carolina last year, Mark Lyttle, born in Rowan County, was dumped in Mexico by U.S. immigration authorities, unable to speak Spanish and with no money. A program of mass deportation without adequate (and expensive) safeguards would inevitably sweep up innocent Americans.
As for the effect on wages, most studies suggest that the only category harmed is that of high school dropouts, who suffer a $25-a-week loss due to the competition. The fact is that there aren’t many jobs where a worker with unknown education and little or no skill with English can compete. And those who fear criminal behavior are misdirecting their concerns. A 2007 study by the Immigration Policy Center found that immigrants, legal or not, are substantially less likely to commit crimes or be incarcerated.
We as a society must begin to take steps to cope with the changing population mix that is predicted to occur over the next few decades. At present, Hispanic students drop out of high school at the alarming rate of 21.4 percent. Compare that with 8.7 percent for the population as a whole. We simply cannot afford to undereducate a population that will be a third of our workforce in 40 years. It may take a couple of generations to turn that around, and we have no time to lose.
There are still actions that we need to take to bring order to the system. Effective border controls and programs to disrupt human trafficking are a necessary start. Sanctions for employers who knowingly hire the undocumented may reduce the incentive to cross the border illegally. But we must also recognize the 12 million already here and take steps to give them legal status.
Given the downsides to deportation, a well-considered system that leads to legal residency, if not full citizenship, for those not guilty of criminal behavior merits serious consideration. Such a legalization effort is expected to create $1.5 trillion in U.S. economic growth over the next 10 years.
America’s history is one of changes brought about by immigration. Over the years, migrants from every corner of the world have come to this country and helped it become the most prosperous nation on earth. But success isn’t guaranteed. It’s up to all of us to do what we must to ease the transition of newcomers into our society.
At the end of the day, immigration is an opportunity for progress. It’s up to all of us to make the most of it.
Jim Heim is chairman of the Moore County Democratic Party. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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