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Immigrants Are Ever More Crucial After 9/11
by Cyrus D. Mehta

Below is the text of Cyrus Mehta’s remarks as a panelist at a World Affairs Forum on September 25, 2002 entitled "US Immigration After 9/11: What Should Change?" at the University of Stamford in CT. The opposing panelist was David Ray, Associate Executive Director of FAIR.

Since the September 11 attacks, many have formed the misguided opinion that immigration has to be curbed to make America safer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Immigration is not synonymous with terrorism. Fortunately, our elected leaders, including the President, have conveyed this message most emphatically. We must continuously be reminded that America remains a nation of immigrants. The reason for its robustness, economic power and leadership in the world is because of its immigrants’ contributions.

New York, my city, is the focal point for immigrants. Mayor Guliani always welcomed the contributions of immigrants in NYC, including those of undocumented immigrants. Mayor Bloomberg has followed suit. Mayors from towns like Schenectady come every weekend to New York to lure immigrants to revitalize their parts of the country! New York’s position as the world’s preeminent city is because of its immigrants. If there were no immigrants, there would be no restaurants with cuisines from all around the world. It would be hard to hail a taxi. Schools would not have teachers. There would be no delis open 24/7. The arts would not flourish. Columbia University and New York University would lose their standing as places of preeminent learning and research. Downtown Manhattan may probably not be rebuilt that easily. One can go on and on.

40% of New York City is foreign born. If you add the children of these people, 60% of the city has strong immigrant roots. New York City, along with San Francisco, another city of immigrants, are America’s two most thriving cities. Immigrants have revitalized neighborhoods in these cities, created employment opportunities for others, and have also caused these cities to dazzle around the world as great cultural centers. In contrast to New York and San Francisco, Philadelphia is on the decline because of a major loss in its population. Many neighborhoods are on the decline in this old and historic city. Without an increase in immigration to Philadelphia, the city might not be able to reverse this trend. Studies show that immigrants tend to live in urban areas. This tendency has a stabilizing effect on America’s cities and have prevented many from decline.

Immigration, especially to urban areas, also constitutes a great experiment in harmonious living. People from countries in conflict live peacefully as neighbors in American cities. Thus, a Pakistani and Indian do not bring the same ancient enmity to the United States. They will go to each other’s restaurants in New York and watch the same ethnic TV channels. The same applies to Israelis and Palestinians, Azeris and Armenians. In New York, there have been no instances of ethnic violence between different communities.

When the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center hundreds of immigrants perished with native Americans. New York misses them sorely, along with its natives who were also killed, as members of its own family. Fortunately, New York continues to make its immigrants feel welcome and has not adopted the anti-immigrant rhetoric seen elsewhere in the country after the attacks. This is New York’s greatest strength despite being the victim of the worst terrorist attack in history. New York City, which suffered the most devastation on that fateful morning of September 11, is still an example to the rest of the country for continuing to lay out the welcoming mat toward immigrants.

All immigration policy since September 11 is viewed through the prism of security. However, security and immigration can co-exist without undermining each other. Terrorists do not come to the US as immigrants do, which is to share in this nation’s success. Their sole objective was to enter the US to tear it down. None of the 19 hijackers followed the pattern of genuine immigrants, who come to this country to make a new life, create better opportunities for their children, which in turn enhances America’s well being.

Moreover, recent experience teaches us that terrorists are not always foreign nationals. Most who have recently been charged with terrorism, with the sole exception of Moussavi, are US citizens. Indeed, noncitizens who were rounded up in the months after the September 11 attacks and were detained for prolonged periods have not been linked to the attacks. Several reports, including a detailed one from Human Rights Watch, indicate that the Executive, under Attorney General Ashcroft’s Justice Department, detained over a thousand noncitizens solely based on their ethnicity, nationality or religion. While the government argues that they were ostensibly detained because of visa violations, legal experts are of the opinion that the immigration laws were used as an end run around the greater protections afforded to criminal defendants such as probably cause for arrest, production before a magistrate within 48 hours, and a right to a court appointed counsel. Their detentions and deportation hearings were also kept secret.

As Judge Damon Keith of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals so eloquently expressed in a decision upholding open hearings: "Democracy dies behind closed doors." Judge Kessler, in another decision authorizing the release of names of the detained individuals stated "secret arrests are a concept odious to a democratic society and profoundly antithetical to the bedrock values that characterizes a free and open one such as ours."

Profiling immigrants is a sloppy law enforcement technique. It causes only disenchantment within the immigrant community. It would also destroy years of confidence building measures between local police departments and immigrant communities. Law enforcement can also get complacent if it adheres to a particular profile, as terrorists can use proxies who do not fit the profile to act on their behalf.

Immigration is inextricably part of the American national identity and always has been. The immigrants of times long past laid the framework for this great nation with their blood, sweat and tears. They were instrumental in some of America’s accomplishments: the Transcontinental Railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Erie Canal to name a few. Albert Einstein, Justice Felix Frankfurter and Henry Kissinger are immigrants.

Even recently, during the 90s, a period of the largest influx of immigrants, there is no doubt that immigrants helped in our economic growth. During the 1990s boom, when employment was at a historical low of 5 percent, it was immigrants that entered the workforce and offset difficulties in recruiting US workers. The business community, through the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as the labor community, most notably the AFL-CIO, supported the crucial role of immigrants in the economy. If it had not been for immigrants entering the workforce, we may not have had the longest economic expansion in our history. Alan Greenspan remarked that the "demand is putting very significant pressures on an ever decreasing supply of unemployed labor. The one obvious means that one can use to offset that is expanding the number of people we allow in, either generally or in specifically focused areas."

Even in today’s downturn, unemployment in the US is still under 6%, well below unemployment rates of over 7 percent in the early 1990s. And despite the increase in the unemployment rate, employers cannot find sufficient workers in the housing, retail, and service industries. As an immigration lawyer, I am also aware that there is a crying need for workers in the healthcare sector, teachers in the public school systems, and specialized professionals in very highly skilled IT and biotech jobs. If the demand for foreign workers did not exist, I would not be in business today!

Auguste Comte said that "Demography was destiny." The Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections for 2000 to 2010, released in November of 2001, forecast that there will be 22 million jobs created by 2010. With the baby boomer generation retiring, the only people who can fill these jobs would be enterprising and hardworking immigrants. The US is not in the same crisis as some European countries with aging and declining populations because it has already admitted a large immigrant population.

As the Social Security System gets more burdened with an elderly population, only immigrants’ contribution toward the Social Security System will be able to save it. A study conducted by the National Research Council and National Academy of Sciences concluded that the total net benefit (taxes paid over benefits received) to the Social Security system in today’s dollars from continuing levels of immigration will be nearly $500 billion for the 1998-2022 period.

The NRC/NAS study’s main conclusion is that on average, an additional immigrant generated a positive net contribution to the country of roughly $1,800. The study also found that the average immigrant imposes a net lifetime fiscal cost on state and local governments of $25,000. However, one explanation is that the taxes exacted from immigrants go to the federal government, whereas the services they use, such as school, roads, etc. are provided by local governments. Furthermore, the study does not take into account the collection of sales and consumption taxes from immigrants. Since these taxes can be collected regardless of immigration status, it is clear that immigrants, both documented and undocumented, make huge contributions to such taxes.

Additional studies confirm similar conclusions. The Urban Institute found that immigrants paid $70.3 billion in taxes per year and received $42.9 billion in services. According to a study conducted by the National Immigration Forum and Cato Institute, in their low earning years, immigrants are net drains on the public coffers, but over a period of time, after 10-15 years- in the US, they turn into net contributors.

Critics are also keen to point out that immigrants depress wages of US workers. Immigrants fill mainly high-end and low-end jobs. With respect to high-end jobs, the H-1B visa program ensures that employers pay the prevailing wage. If they do not, they can be severely punished. In the low skilled sector, our immigration system is simply not equipped to provide visas. Most are undocumented. By the time a bricklayer from Mexico obtains an employment-related visa to immigrate, it would have taken many years and the need may no longer exist. This immigrant worker is bound to one employer during his or her undocumented status in the US. The current immigrant system disfavors lower skilled workers, yet there is a very high demand for them. Undocumented immigration in this country would decrease if there was a more sensible immigration policy to grant visas to foreign workers filling essential positions within the economy. If there was a more sensible policy, it would also ensure that unscrupulous employers do not exploit undocumented workers and depress wages.

There is no clear line of demarcation between legal and undocumented immigration. Most undocumented immigrants want to legalize and many are in the process of doing so. They continue to remain undocumented while it could take several years to become legal. Others with no hope of legalizing under current law are hoping for Congress to pass a law that would reward their long residence and labor in the US.

Prior to September 11, there were high level talks between Presidents Fox of Mexico and Bush to unveil a regularization program for the millions of undocumented Mexican workers in the US who have built ties, family, and are making significant economic contributions. Imagine what would happen to the economy if every undocumented immigrant went on strike. Leave alone a collapse of essential services and schools, we probably would not get food on our plate. It is time that Congress passed a law that would regularize the status of undocumented immigrants in the US. The legalization of such workers would allow them greater mobility, prevent exploitation from unscrupulous employers, and allow more immigrants to contribute to the national coffer. The law need not be so complex and should help in President Bush’s words "willing employers to get together with willing employees." Finally, regularizing the status of undocumented workers would also enhance America’s security as it would be able to better track this hidden population that now is forced to live in the shadows.

Let me end with my own experience. I too am an immigrant. America has been wonderful to me and allowed me to build my career and blossom as a lawyer. I am also honored that you have invited an immigrant (now a naturalized citizen) to express views and recommend solutions on this very important American issue. I also live and work in New York and love it immensely, warts and all. In my small New York law firm, I have provided stable jobs to many US workers over the years. After the September 11 attacks, I moved to new offices downtown, in Wall Street, in the firm belief that New York would recover if people like me moved to the area. There are millions of immigrants like me, many far more successful, who provide jobs to thousands of Americans. They play an important role in their corporations, organizations, professions and communities. Let us for a moment leave aside surveys, statistics and other numbers. My own experience tells me that immigration is good for America.

About The Author

Cyrus D. Mehta, a graduate of Cambridge University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City. He is First Vice Chair of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the 1997 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award. He is also Chair of the Immigration and Nationality Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities and may be contacted at 212-425-0555 or

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.