A Crisis Of Perspective: Why The Right Is Wrong On Comprehensive Immigration Reform
As the U.S. Congress prepares to discuss new immigration legislation, it will be helpful to proponents of immigration reform to have persuasive reasoning at their fingertips to counter their anti-reform antagonists on the far right. A comprehensive overhaul to our nation's immigration laws will have benefits and consequences that the "right wing" will desire. However, they will need a thorough explanation as to how the long-term ramifications of immigration reform will have a positive impact on their conservative values and agenda for America.
The right wing of the now minority Republican party is concerned that the Democrat controlled House will get together with an already willing Senate to pass the far reaching immigration reform that President Bush has advocated. In truth, they needn't worry. Yes, immigration reform is coming, but if the right-wingers only understood the true value that "comprehensive" immigration reform will bring to our country, they would probably be leading the charge toward the upcoming changes, not fighting it, as they have been to date.
There are multiple reasons, many of which are in line with conservative right wing political views, as to why immigration reform will benefit the United States, and I'll explore them in some detail here. The ramifications of comprehensive immigration reform will resonate throughout almost every aspect of American society, including our economy, our social security system, our education system, the "American way of life", and perhaps most importantly our country's security, and by extension the entire security of the "Western World". Am I overstating the case? I think that with a thorough understanding of the facts, even the most ardent right wing conservatives will be swayed toward instituting comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible.
I'll start with the security issue, and work my way backwards from there, because I realize the people reading this will probably be shaking there heads in disbelief that reforming our immigration policy could possibly have any substantial effect on World security.
For starters, I think that we can all agree that for all intents and purposes, the United States is at present the World's only military "superpower". That title comes with an awesome responsibility, and at a tremendous financial cost to our government. Our current conflicts in Afghanistan and especially Iraq have shown us that we are somewhat limited in the ability of our military to be fighting battles on several fronts, while at the same time maintaining strategic control over several addition "hot spots" and/or areas of concern requiring a military presence. We have strained our military's manpower and budget.
Comprehensive immigration reform helps on both of those fronts. Regarding the issue of manpower for our military, it helps in the following ways:
As to the cost of securing our nation, (and by extension the whole world), it is an obvious fact that as our economy expands, so does our tax base, thus making the cost of securing our country less burdensome on our tax system. The influx of low cost labor that comprehensive immigration reform will provide to our country's economy through legalization of currently undocumented laborers, and through a "guest worker" program, will have benefits that will ripple through our entire economy, (more detail about this later). This would allow us to lower our tax rates, which would further stimulate our economy, (ie: supply side or "trickle down" economics), and also to redirect some of the additional tax funds generated by our expanded economy toward much needed social services and infrastructure maintenance, thus improving life in America, while still allowing our government to expand our military, ensuring a safer world.
Also, many if not all of the "right-wing" anti-immigration advocates would consider themselves anti-communist as well. It would alarm them to find out that their anti-immigration reform stance is pro-communist, in that it would facilitate and bolster the growing communist and/or socialist movements that have been making huge progress in Latin America in recent years.
Communists have won important and disconcerting political headway in many Latin American countries, including Venezuela, Nicaragua, and most alarmingly Mexico, right on our southern border. Adding another 12-20 million unemployed, low skilled laborers to the already swollen unemployment ranks of Mexico and other Latin American countries would cause a groundswell of support for the leftist movements already causing so must unrest in Mexico recently.
The threat of communism should not be taken lightly. Already 10% of the able-bodied Mexican labor force has headed north into the United States to look for work, since little employment exists in Mexico to sustain them and/or their families. Economic studies have shown that when the Mexican economy retracts by 1%, an additional .06% of their labor force heads to the United States to find work. If we were to deport these workers back to Mexico, it would of course add several million workers to the "end of the unemployment lines" in Mexico, while at the same time cutting off the financial flow of dollars from workers that had emigrated to the United States to earn money to support their Mexican families, which would cause severe unrest and economic hardship, and add major support to the growing socialist or communist movements. Economic studies have shown that countries need their average workers to earn a minimum of $4,000 per year, in order to sustain civil political stability. This is one of the main reasons why there is so much unrest in Iraq right now, to name one example, (Iraq has a 60% unemployment rate amount young male workers, fueling civil unrest in that country, among other pressures). That is why it is so crucial that we help Mexico sustain their economy. A huge influx of unemployed workers, together with a stoppage in remittances from all of those displaced workers sending funds into the Mexican economy, (their second largest revenue source after oil exports), would devastate their fragile economy. This would also embolden our leftist enemies such as Castro in Cuba, Chavez in Venezuela, and Ortega in Nicaragua to ferment additional unrest in Mexico, bringing the very real communist threat directly to our border.
Of course, deporting all of these workers would absolutely cripple our own economy. Not only are these hard working laborers an integral part of our work force, they are the tool that enables us to compete for business in the global economy that we would not be able to attract without the ready and available supply of low wage laborers.
Without the 12,000,000 or so undocumented laborers that are presently and gainfully employed in our flourishing economy, we would be severely short-handed in many of the most important sectors of our economy. Even with these workers that are already employed here now, our overall unemployment rate has been below 5% for over 2 years. That is "virtual" full employment, and anyone who is employable, and wants to work, is able to find a job, (or two), in today's economy. So what would happen if we were to deport 12,000,000 or more of these workers? For starters, we would be short 12,000,000 or more workers. Not only that, but we would be short 12,000,000 good, hard workers. In point of fact, we would be short by over 10% of our current labor supply, and that would immediately and very negatively impact every sector of our economy.
For example, our agriculture industry is, at present, our leading export industry. Considering how troubling our huge trade deficit already is, it would leave us, and by extension the U.S. dollar, in a much more troubling and precarious position then it already is if we were unable to offset some of the outflow of our currency to China, and other countries through the export of food products. If we were to deport the undocumented agricultural laborers, we would have severe shortages in our food supply. The cost of food would skyrocket, fueling runaway inflation on the one hand, while putting on the brakes and depressing our economy on the other.
A case in point would be Colorado, which bills itself as the most anti-illegal immigrant state in the country, and is represented in the House of Representatives by Tom Tancredo, who has been an outspoken advocate for harsh laws aimed against undocumented laborers. Colorado has passed some of the toughest anti-illegal immigrant state legislation in the nation, and has suffered immeasurably for it. The agricultural workers, both legal and illegal, fled the state because of the ill-conceived anti immigrant laws, and as a result, Colorado's farmers have suffered. Their crops were left rotting in their fields, and the state's farmers have become so desperate that they have resorted to using prisoners to tend their fields. The state has also suffered labor shortages in construction, and other business's such as carwashes are struggling to stay open without a sufficient supply of available labor.
The travel and leisure sector of our economy is also hugely dependant on undocumented labor. We would face a major shortage of labor in the hotel and restaurant fields. Hotel prices would go up, while the availability of guest rooms and services would contract considerably. The cost of eating in restaurants would escalate as well, due not only to the inevitable rise in food costs, but also due to the rise in labor costs associated with the removal of the current labor supply. In many cases, the unavailability of labor would force many food service businesses to close, which would contribute to the downward spiral of the overall economy.
The construction sector of our economy, which has been a leading force behind the health of our economic growth over the past decade, would face a 15-20% loss of labor immediately. However, the cost of building might only experience a temporary rise, since the overall retraction in the economy due to the loss of all undocumented workers would inevitably slow the need for new construction severely as the economy cooled. However, the slow down in new construction would have a chilling effect on our overall GNP, thus perpetuating the downward spiral initiated by the deportation of undocumented workers.
The manufacturing sector of our economy would suffer due to a major loss of available productivity. This would be especially troubling to our overall economy, because manufacturing jobs, which have already been drastically reduced through outsourcing to countries that do have an available supply of low cost labor, are vital to the health of our overall economy due to the "multiplicative" effect of manufacturing jobs on our economy. Without going into a lengthy explanation of what that means, in simple terms, a new manufacturing job leads to the creation of 3-5 additional jobs in our economy. This is because when you manufacture a product, you need to buy the components needed to assemble that product, the electricity needed to produce the product, the packaging of the product, the shipping, accounting, managerial support, etc., etc.. Service sector jobs, in contrast to manufacturing jobs, usually only lead to the creation of at most 1 additional job, so you can see the value of manufacturing jobs on an economy. If we were to lose manufacturing jobs due to deportation, it would lead to the loss of many additional jobs throughout other sectors of the economy. The loss of several million manufacturing jobs would lead to a major slowdown in the economy. On the bright side, such massive unemployment in the manufacturing, and by extension the service industries in our country, would free up unemployed laborers to work in the fields picking food. Unfortunately, many people would be unhappy about losing their high paying jobs in the cities of our country, to work at low paying field jobs that would require them to relocate to farming communities.
The above points serve to underscore one of the most integral arguments for comprehensive immigration reform. Perhaps more importantly, it is a pro-American argument as well. Simply stated, it is this: These undocumented people are the "Americans of old" that made this country great. These people are the trailblazers. They saw that their home countries couldn't provide them with a satisfactory way of life, so they did something about it. They are go-getters. They wanted a better life for themselves and their families, so they packed their meager belongings, invested their life savings to make the hard and dangerous journey, and came to America because the had the courage and fortitude to grasp at the chance for a better opportunity. They didn't ask for handouts. They asked for hard work, and then they did it. They are chasing the American dream.
These aren't the lazy, timid people that stayed home and accepted oppression or meager sustenance. These are the leaders, the providers, and arguably the most pro-active 10% of their countries work force. They showed the indomitable spirit of our ancestors, the bold optimism of the old-west pioneers. The right-wing should be embracing these people, not shunning or scorning them. They have what it takes to make our country even greater then it is. These are the types of hard working survivors that enable us to prove to the world that the American values of free enterprise and capitalism fuel democracies, and that is why we lead the world.
To get back to the economic benefits of comprehensive immigration reform, there are so many that we need to make a list, as follows:
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently testified before congress that even a 25% increase in tax rates wouldn't solve our upcoming shortfall in Social Security funding. However, he admitted that an increase in immigrant labor through legalization of workers already here, as well as an increase in the guest worker program, would be a "step in the right direction", although he did add that even an additional 2,000,000 workers per year would be insufficient to completely solve the looming Social Security problem.
Now that "baby boomers" have started to reach retirement age, the system is unraveling. There is no percentage of payroll tax that workers can feasibly pay into the system, no matter how high, that can compensate for the amount of retirees that will soon reach the top of the pyramid. By 2040, it is estimated that at our current rate, there will be only 2 workers paying into social security for every retiree. That obviously can't possibly work.
Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at USC, has written a book titled "Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America", in which he explains that the baby boomers' future is directly tied to the economic success of the younger immigrant population.
If we want to fix this problem, we simply need more workers paying into the system. It is the only way to solve the problem of social security. Even massive tax increases would fall way short of needed revenue, and the right wing hates tax increases almost as much, or more then they hate communism. So, if we need more workers then we presently anticipate having in our workforce based on current population growth projections and already scheduled immigration quotas, we need to either start having many, many more babies right away, or simply increase the immigration quotas. However, guest workers that would come into the country for a limited time in order to work here could help bridge the gap. In any event, the only feasible way to fix the looming, but very real and serious problem of Social Security, is through comprehensive immigration reform.
Another fear that the right wing has about immigration reform, is that they feel that adding additional Latin American citizens would give the Democratic Party an advantage, because they assume that Latin Americans would tend to vote for Democrats. That may well be true right this minute, because so many of the right wing Republicans have been running against immigration reform, and doing so in an ugly way.
However, that is a tide that can be turned. In principal, Latin Americans are, as a people, very religious, family oriented, and conservative. In fact, it can well be argued that Bush was elected President in 2004 largely due to the massive Latin American voter turnout initiated by the religious right. They lobbied quite successfully to get the Latino vote because they assured the Latin American churchgoing community that Bush was more religious then Kerry. They used their large and well-organized network of evangelical Christians to lobby the Latino vote through their churches, and it worked.
If the right wing of the Republican Party could just manage to get out of their own way, they can win back the Latino vote, if for no other reason then by reassuring the Latin American community that they share their strong sense of family and moral values. However, they first must show leadership on immigration reform.
It is understandable that the right wing fears the change that they see in the basic fabric of America, due to the massive influx of Latinos over the past few decades. People have been feeling that same fear all through our nation's history, through the immigration waves of Irish, Italians, European Jews, etc.. All of our previous ancestors have felt and overcome discrimination and even persecution from the Americans that had arrived before them. Assimilation doesn't happen overnight, but the beauty of our system is that it does happen. And when it does, we are all better for it. The multi-cultural population of the United States is like a home cooked stew. Each newly arrived immigrant adds their individual spice to the stew, and helps to stir the pot. The stew has always tasted good, but somehow each new layer of flavor works to make the stew taste even better.
Assimilation of Latin American immigrants into the main stream of American society is the key to solving many of the issues that the right wing doesn't like about the influx of Latin Americans. For example, the Latino Communities tend to congregate together in their own business and social circles, often speaking and advertising in Spanish instead of English. While the preservation of their culture should be important to their communities, the fact is that they are here of their own free will, dictates that they must make the effort required to learn English, and to adapt to our "American Ideals" and way of life.
Logically, if the United States were to allow these people to come out of the shadows and "legally" participate as members of society in good standing, they would feel encouraged to engage and join with the mainstream American society. They would have the "pride of ownership" that comes with being a part of America, instead of feeling that they are merely observers or visitors.
We, as a society, have to be patient, because assimilation is not automatic, it always takes a generation or two to achieve full assimilation, as it did for all of our ancestors that immigrated to America. This leads us to the topic of education, and why comprehensive immigration reform will help improve the quality of education in this country.
Right now, the public, and to a lesser but measurable extent even the private education system in our country is being held back because of the absence of a path to legalization for the undocumented immigrants in this country. If the first generation immigrants were offered a path to legalization that required their learning to speak English, they would feel motivated to learn as soon as possible. This would lead to many positive things, including better productivity in the workplace, but in particular, it would lead to their being more able to help or encourage their children in their schoolwork. It would also help the children of immigrants to learn the English language more quickly, which would enable them to achieve better grades in school.
The positive motivation of being able to do well in school, as well as knowing that they were working toward a goal, an opportunity to advance in education without the fear of deportation, would encourage not only better grades, but higher graduation rates. The dropout rates of Latino children are much higher then average, and this will help to improve our school's retention rates. Also, because a classroom in school can only progress at the rate of its slowest students, this will enable our schools to teach faster, and therefore to cover more of the material in their curriculum. This benefits all students, not just the children of immigrants. We, as a country, need to improve our education system, and since immigration reform can help us to achieve that, then the right wing of the "no child left behind" Republican Party needs to get on board to help the United States improve ourselves in this vital department. The fact is that when we pay for education, it is actually an investment. We are investing in our students now, so that they can be more productive members of society later. Comprehensive immigration reform will assure our country that we will get a better return on our education investment.
This leads us to the nagging question of the cost of educating the children of immigrants, and to the broader question of the cost of social services for undocumented people in general. The right-wing talk shows always like to bring up how many billions of dollars it costs the United States to provide social services for the "illegals".
This is one of the right-wing's most disingenuous arguments. When they talk about how much it "costs" us to pay for the social services for undocumented immigrants, it is like saying that it "costs" a car manufacturer $20,000 to make a car. It might cost them $20,000 to make it, but if the sell it for $40,000, then it's disingenuous to say that it cost them $20,000 for the car, and leave it at that. It's like looking at only one half of a balance sheet. You have to look at both the debits and the credits to understand the whole story.
Sure, there is a large amount of money that it costs to support social services that go towards undocumented workers and their families. However, there is a much larger amount of money that the government takes in from the taxes paid by the undocumented workers. At the end of the day, there is a tremendous net surplus of revenue generated by the taxes of the undocumented laborers working in this country. But that is only a fraction of the story.
The surplus of revenue generated "directly" by the undocumented workers is dwarfed in comparison to the much larger "indirect" revenue made possible by the presence of these workers in the overall marketplace of our economy. The corporate taxes paid by the companies that employ these workers, the income taxes paid by the owners and "legal" employees of these companies, and the taxes generated by the economic activity of the "multiplicative" effect of the money spent and generated by these companies and their legal as well as undocumented employees on the whole U.S. economy at large is many, many times larger then the cost of social services for the undocumented workers. If we deported these workers, the net effect on our government revenue would be very negative, which is why, yet again, the right-wing is misleading the country on this issue.
However, the cost of social services does lead us to an issue that demands comprehensive immigration reform, but for another associated reason. There are cities and/or neighborhoods that are being negatively impacted financially because of an influx of undocumented workers. Cities such as Hazelton, Pennsylvania have been overwhelmed by undocumented workers moving into their city, and they lack the social service infrastructure to be able to handle the effects that the surge of immigrants has caused to their city. Hazelton, and many cities in the same situation, have passed very harsh laws and ordinances aimed against undocumented immigrants in an effort to rid themselves of this problem. While the legality of these measures might be questionable, they have taken these drastic measures because the federal Government hasn't been able to pass the comprehensive immigration reform required to fix the problem.
First of all, if the undocumented people were given legal status, they could be counted in an updated census, and Hazelton and other cities would be able to receive their proper share of revenue to ease their burden for the cost of social services. The same is true with many of the border towns that have been overwhelmed by undocumented workers. The revenue is available here in the United States, but the problem is that the distribution of the revenue is disproportionate to the needs of our communities. It is a problem that can be fixed, but only through comprehensive immigration reform. We need to send the money where it's needed, but we can't do that if we can't document where it's needed.
The right-wing has been encouraging cities like Hazelton to pass anti-undocumented immigrant legislation, in the ill conceived notion that by making the lives of undocumented workers miserable, they would go back to their country of origin. To date, some 572 pieces of local legislation are in various stages of implementation throughout the United States. Of course, if the right-wing understood all of the reasons why we don't want the immigrants to go back, as documented here, they wouldn't be encouraging these cities to be so anti-immigrant. However, there is an additional reason why these cities are making a mistake in the long run.
The undocumented workers that are forced out of these communities are taking their available labor with them, and of course the money and business success that goes with that labor. They won't be spending their money in those anti-immigrant towns, they will be spending their money "down the road." They'll also be working for businesses in their new locations, leaving towns like Hazelton the poorer for it. They won't have immigrants, but they also won't have business.
When comprehensive immigration reform comes, and it's inevitable that it will, the towns or states that have been discouraging the undocumented workers from settling in their area will be "out of the loop" when the newly legalized labor force assimilates into the fabric of our country, and our economy.
There is also the much-publicized issue of driver's licenses. Right now, it is illegal for undocumented workers to drive, since they can't obtain driver's licenses. They have been forced by the circumstances of our society to drive illegally to earn a living here. This is dangerous for everybody. If they were licensed, it would help in several ways. First, they would have to get actual training, which would make them better drivers. Second, they would be able to obtain the mandatory insurance that all drivers must have to drive a car in this country. Third, they would be in possession of a picture ID, which would be in the "system", so that they could be tracked by the government for driving infractions, as well as other information that the law might require. This leads to the most urgent reason to document all of the people in this country, and it is a right-wing issue. We need to document everyone on this country for national security reasons.
If we were to document all of the undocumented people here, we would be able find out, once and for all, who these people are. The only way to separate out the criminals and/or terrorists from the good, hard working people, is to make sure that everyone has documents enabling them to be here.
If background checks were done on all of these people, we could deport the people that we don't want, due to lack of moral character, or other reasons that make them undesirable. If everyone here were documented, businesses would no longer have any excuse to hire someone that wasn't documented. Everything would be out in the open, because good people would have no reason to hide. If someone didn't have papers, you would know that there was a problem, and they could be deported, without us having to fear that it would hurt our economy.
These are turbulent and troubling times. If we, as Americans, are to be secure here, both economically and physically, (and in the long run, they are both the same thing), then we need to have serious comprehensive immigration reform right away. Immigration reform will help our security at home and abroad, help us to fight against communism, help us to maintain and improve our economic standing in the world, allow us to fix our broken Social Security system, allow all of the undocumented immigrants to assimilate into American society, improve our faltering education system, improve our ability to provide infrastructure and social services, increase our tax revenue while lowering tax rates, and make our country a safer place to live, drive, and work. These are all right-wing conservative issues, and they are all improved by comprehensive immigration reform. Bi-partisan politics is very much like the weather, everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Well, there's fair weather coming, and believe it or not, it's coming from the general direction of the right.
Robert Gittelson has been a garment manufacturer in the Los Angeles area for over 25 years. His wife, Patricia Gittelson, is an immigration attorney with offices in Van Vuys and Oxnard, California. Robert also works closely with Patricia on the administrative side of her immigration practice. Throughout his career, Mr. Gittelson has developed practical, first hand experience in dealing with the immigration issues that are challenging our country today.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.