There is a tight pantheon of social and political issues so fraught that when brought up they are guaranteed to start a row pretty much everywhere in America. Among them are LGBT rights, abortion rights, and gun rights. As provoking as any is the highly charged issue of immigration. We can't even agree on what to call people who have crossed our borders without permission or overstayed travel, work, or educational visas. Are they illegal or are they undocumented? Are they economic refugees or are they parasites? Do we benefit from their labor and contributions to American society or are they a drain on our resources and a burden to federal, state, and local government?
One side sees these immigrants as criminals who have flouted our immigration laws, who are taking jobs away from citizens and legal residents and are draining public coffers of funds that could go to resolving the concerns of those residing here lawfully.
An equally adamant group sees them as refugees from floundering economies, mostly in Mexico and Central and South America, who pay taxes and contribute to American society and whose status is routinely overlooked as long as they are doing jobs no native-born or naturalized American citizen wants.
Most agree that current federal immigration law contains gaps and loopholes that overlook the status of some of these immigrants, like agricultural workers in many parts of the country who plant and pick our crops but have few rights. Neither, many say, do we adequately address the porosity of our borders, particularly our southern border with Mexico from where the overwhelming numbers of such immigrants come.
The various states are equally disparate in their treatment of immigration. In 2010 Arizona passed an act making it a state crime to violate federal law that requires immigrants to have registration documents in their possession at all times; it directed law enforcement officers attempt to determine an individual's immigration status during a lawful stop, and called for detention or arrest when there is reasonable suspicion that the individual is an illegal immigrant. 36 other states have subsequently attempted and five states — Utah, Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama — succeeded in passing laws similar to Arizona’s. Federal courts have struck down all or part of most of these laws, finding that immigration is an issue over which only the federal government has authority.
On the opposite side are states like California that call the contributions of these immigrants 'valuable" and are seeking to increase such workers' rights. Two bills currently in California's legislature would protect undocumented workers' rights. One would buffer them against employer retaliation if the workers make labor complaints. The second would set licensing and employee relations standards for foreign labor contractors.
So as the debate unfolds, what else should we know about the issues?
The flow of undocumented (or illegal) immigrants to the US has effectively ceased and possibly even reversed in the past couple of years. The LA Times reports that the number of such immigrants living in the U.S. actually dropped to 11.1 million in 2009 from a peak of 12 million in 2007 – the "first significant reversal" in illegal immigrant growth over the last two decades. America's recent economic travails, coupled with an improving economy in Mexico, are among the most cited reasons for this change.
Illegal immigrants are a net benefit to the U.S. economy. They produce $150 billion of economic activity. Their spending pays for the employment of about 5% of the total U.S. workforce; approximately 8 million U.S. jobs are dependent upon economic activity produced by illegal immigrant activities within the U.S. They also occupy over 3 million dwellings, or just under 4% of U.S. homes. The Americas Society reports that "On average, immigrants, including the undocumented, pay nearly $1,800 more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Households headed by undocumented immigrants paid $11.2 billion in state and local taxes in 2010. That included $1.2 billion in personal income taxes, $1.6 billion in property taxes and $8.4 billion in sales taxes."
Immigrants do not cause lower wages for U.S. citizens. The Economic Policy Institute reports that there is broad agreement among economists that immigration has a small but positive impact on the average wages of workers born in the United States: while new immigrant workers add to the labor supply, they also consume goods and services, which creates more jobs. They don't differentiate between documented and undocumented in the study but note that "we find little evidence of large negative impacts …"
A pathway to citizenship is the most contentious issue. How should we treat those undocumented immigrants already in the country? 52% of voters surveyed in a May 2 Quinnipiac Poll said that they support allowing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. This is, however, a 7% point drop from a month earlier. The poll also found that 30% of voters say illegal immigrants should be required to leave the U.S., a up from 25% four weeks ago.
The Christian Science Monitor notes that the question focuses largely on what kind of route the currently undocumented would have to take to become citizens — a special path designed specifically for the current illegal population or the regular channels available to other potential immigrants.
The Monitor adds that the position of congressional opponents is neatly summed up by Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, a key GOP immigration negotiator who says that "It would be a travesty in my opinion to treat those who violated our laws to get here much better than those who have patiently waited their turn to come to the United States."
President Obama has taken the opposite position, saying in a recent press conference that immigration reform must meet basic criteria:
"Does it make the border safer? Does it [deal] with employers and how they work with the governments to make sure that people are not being taken advantage of or taking advantage of the system? Are we improving our legal immigration system? And are we creating a pathway for citizenship for the 11 million or so who are undocumented in this country?"
Signal progress on the issue is marked by the fact that two organizations often at odds over workplace rights, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, have come to an agreement over a proposed path to citizenship with the following provisions: the more than 11 million immigrants currently in the country without proper documentation and who were in the United States before Dec. 31, 2011, would be able to apply for a newly created immigration status called Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI). Application requires paying a $500 fine, plus some fees. RPI status includes authorization to work and allows the workers to change jobs and travel outside the United States.
After ten years, a person with RPI status who has been regularly employed would be able to apply for a green card (permanent residence) and after three years may apply for citizenship. Applicants would also have to show proficiency in English and pass a criminal background check. Persons convicted of an aggravated felony, felony, three separate misdemeanors, or voting fraud would not be eligible.
Agricultural workers who worked at least 100 days in the agriculture industry during the 24-month period that ended Dec. 31, 2011, would be able apply for a new blue card status that will allow them to continue to work in the industry for three to five years and then apply for a green card.
The debate is far from over. Congressional support for major pieces of immigration reform (especially among conservatives) looks to be waning as national support declines. The issue of how to secure our southern border also continues to loom large. The electoral politics of the nation's growing Latino population (ignorance of which was a major factor in the Republican presidential loss in 2012) will figure ever more strongly in the debate over the next few years. A solution is tantalizingly close, yet like the low-hanging fruit that ever eluded Tantalus, it may stay just out of our reach.