Writer, activist, and openly undocumented immigrant José Antonio Vargas wrote this week’s TIME magazine's feature story about the broken immigration system. The Supreme Court is expected to decide on the constitutionality of the Arizona immigration law this month.
The debate on immigration is highly relevant this year because of the importance of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 elections. But there are more than politically savvy reasons to deal properly with immigration. With 12 million undocumented migrants, the U.S. should improve the path towards citizenship for economic reasons, but more importantly because the definition of “American” is changing.
In an election year in which Hispanics will likely decide the outcome, both presidential candidates have been ramping up their appeal to Hispanic voters. On Friday, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. will stop deporting and give immunity to working-age young undocumented immigrants who arrived as children and have followed the law. His announcement is timely, given all the negative press saying Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than any other president.
Romney, on the other hand, has focused on the economy as his main selling point to a Latino population that seems mostly concerned with job creation. With the Hispanic vote as a key determiner of this year’s election, the candidates are likely to continue grappling with immigration to win voters.
From an economic standpoint, however, reforming immigration has been necessary for a while. Our current expulsion and keep-out policy is ineffective and costly; we spend billions each year rounding illegal immigrants up, shutting down their businesses, building expensive fences that fail to block migrants, and deporting people who are American citizens in every sense but in name.
In 2010, the U.S. spent $5 billion deporting 393,000 undocumented migrants. Besides losing money through force-heavy policy, we lose immigrants who study in our schools, could represent potential tax dollars, and would add vitality to our neighborhoods. Since the late 19th-century, immigrants have fueled our economy, especially in urban centers. Instead of kicking them out, we should bring those who deserve citizenship -- those law-abiding, studying, or militarily serving young people who virtually are citizens already -- and focus on keeping only criminals or other undeserving people out. The DREAM Act has proposed a way by placing students and soldiers on track towards citizenship, but Congress has yet to pass it.
More importantly, we need reform to catch up with the rapidly changing definition of American. As of July 2011, minority births have outnumbered white births because of immigration and the growing minority-citizen population. Often immigrants can answer citizenship test questions better than born citizens. While ethnicity should not define the identity of a country that champions its melting pot non-nationality, we still picture “American” as a white, middle-class male; this year’s American Idol winner was yet another sweet Southern white guitarist instead of the half Latina , half Filipina superstar teenager from California. Our understanding of American has not caught up with the day-to-day reality, which is becoming more ethnically and socially diverse. The law, by beginning to embrace rather than reject undocumented migrants, needs to recognize our future as an ever-more diverse country.
Immigration may seem like a marginal issue compared to the economy, and perhaps it is. But it will get attention because it challenges us to rethink what it means to be American; it gets at the heart of our identities. So it's time for the government to deal effectively with immigration reform - not only for short-term political and economic expediency, but also to be honest about our national identity.