Congress is considering legislation (S. 744) to reform the nation’s immigration laws. The bill is undergoing frequent revision as it moves through the legislative process so it is difficult to stay current on all of the provisions, but the broad elements of what must be included if any proposal is to pass is emerging. This commentary examines a few of the underlying issues driving the debate and offers some perspective based on Catholic teaching.
Over the last half century the U.S. has seen a massive influx of immigrants. During the 1950’s an average of 250,000 people became legal permanent residents (LPR) each year. Between the years 2000 to 2012 over 1 million people annually became legal permanent residents. According to the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics, 1,031,631 persons became legal permanent residents in 2012.[i]
The Congressional Research Service reports that by 2010 the U.S. had 40 million foreign-born residents. This is the largest level of foreign-born residents in U.S. history. Over 11 million of these immigrants are here illegally.[ii] This has been one of the largest movements of people in history. And although net migration from Mexico to the United States has stopped for the time being[iii], Americans are understandably worried and many favor stronger border enforcement.
Without a new law, illegal immigration will likely continue because workers from poor countries are drawn to the U.S. to find jobs. Some of the money they earn is sent home to their families, about $50 billion annually. In effect, these remittances have been a lifeline for impoverished families in poor countries around the world.[iv]
But the movement of people outside the protection of law leads to problems both for immigrants and native-born citizens. Illegal immigrants, for example, can be hired and then placed in dangerous working conditions. Native-born workers wonder if the new immigrants rob them of job opportunities.
Immigration is an issue that evokes strong passions. Some have no sympathy for “rule breakers” and want them all deported. Others view enforcement efforts as painting too broad a brush, leading to the harassment of legal citizens, most particularly those who are Hispanic or Asian. Others urge a path to citizenship for those illegal aliens who are responsible members of their community.
Reforming the nation’s immigration laws will not be easy. Even without the strong emotions involved, the issue is complex and resists easy solutions. Yet to do nothing is to accept a status quo that no one is satisfied with. Illegal immigration hurts both immigrants and citizens. Something needs to be done.
A Closer Look at Immigration Issues:
A little over 11 million immigrants are in this country illegally. Many informed observers agree that mass deportation is not a practical option. Dr. Dagobert L. Brito, in a report issued by the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University, states that: “The number of people in the United States illegally is so large that there are not sufficient resources available to enforce immigration laws.” It is particularly difficult to enforce immigration laws once people are residing in the country. Brito observes:
People of Hispanic or Asian origin are a substantial minority of the population in some parts of the country and many are citizens or legal residents. Some are from families that have been in the United States for generations. Distinguishing probable illegal immigrants from persons of the same ethnic groups who are here legally is difficult; the clues are subtle and they are difficult to specify. Attempts to more broadly enforce immigration laws could lead to profiling, harassment, and the possible violation of the civil rights of citizens, legal residents, and tourist simply because of ethnicity.[v]
Although some illegal aliens engage in criminal activity, such as drug trading, most work in jobs like roofing houses and cleaning hotels. But employment-based visas are capped at 140,000 per year, with a few additional offered because of unused visas in the family preference category. In addition, there are temporary work visas but only a limited number are available. No other developed country places so low a priority on facilitating the legal immigration of permanent workers.[vi]
Meanwhile, labor demand in the U.S. has increased while birth rates have declined. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, in 2011 the U.S. birth rate dipped to the lowest level ever recorded. The birth rate peaked in 1957 with 122.7 births per 1000 women but has generally declined in recent years. Immigrants now make up 16% of the U.S. labor force. And over half of the increase in the labor force between 1996 and 2010 is the result of immigration, both legal and illegal.[vii]
Some argue the large influx of illegal workers depresses wages for American citizens. In summarizing the current consensus among economists, Linda Levine with the Congressional Research Service concludes that immigration is “unlikely to have substantially affected the wage or job prospects of the average native-born worker.” The well-respected economist David Card also suggests that immigration since the 1980’s has had little impact on the relative wages of native-born workers.[viii]
The economists Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny conclude that in general immigrants and native-born workers complement each other in the skills they bring to the marketplace. Low-skilled immigrants tend to take manual labor jobs, such as housekeepers, maids, cooks, and farm workers that most native-born workers are not interested in. Meanwhile, high-skilled immigrants fuel innovation and economic activity. Between 1995 and 2005, immigrants established 25% of the firms in the high-tech sector. These firms create jobs for both immigrants and native-born workers.[ix]
Immigrant labor and business initiatives fuel economic growth, but concerns remain among many that illegal aliens will further burden taxpayers by their reliance on Medicaid and other social programs. It is too often overlooked, however, that even the present immigration law bars non-citizens from benefits in most federal programs, including Medicaid. And S. 744 does not make it easier for non-citizens to access welfare programs.
As proposed by S. 744, before obtaining legal permanent residence, an illegal alien would have to pay back taxes, demonstrate English language skills, show evidence of employment or full-time education, and pass law enforcement clearances. It would take several years to become a citizen and during this process persons would not be eligible for federal welfare programs. Under the proposal, the person must earn their citizenship.
Yet none of these steps toward citizenship can take place under S. 744 until a comprehensive border security program is deployed, and an employment verification program is established to ensure that illegal aliens cannot obtain jobs in the U.S. This is the compromise that will be required to pass any reform legislation. Without enhanced border security, no path to citizenship will be authorized.
Establishing a new immigration system will be challenging but the end result could benefit all Americans. For example, if Congress enacts immigration reform similar to S. 744, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the federal budget deficit would decrease by $197 billion over the period 2014-2023. In the report the CBO explains that spending on some federal programs, such as Medicaid, would increase as illegal aliens become citizens, but because of the increased collection of payroll and income taxes the federal deficit would, on balance, be reduced.[x]
More taxpaying legal immigrants will help to fund the Social Security program just as the baby boomer generation moves into retirement. This is another positive outcome that can result from the passage of a new immigration law.
Immigration: Catholic Perspectives
Catholic teaching recognizes the right of nations to control their borders in order to ensure orderly immigration. At the same time, Catholic teaching upholds the right of people to migrate when faced with persecution or extreme poverty.[xi]
The U.S. Catholic bishops support a comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration laws that includes these key elements:
- Global anti-poverty efforts that will allow people to remain in their native country and live in dignity. Crushing poverty spurs much of the migration occurring worldwide;
- More opportunities for families to reunite. At present family members endure years of separation because of a backlog of available visas for family members;
- A temporary worker program that allows more workers to enter the country legally and fill vacant jobs. Immigrants add to the robustness of the American economy;
- A path whereby people residing in this country without proper legal status can earn legal permanent residence (LPR) and then citizenship. Allowing people to become legal residents will benefit all of us;
- Protection of the human rights of all immigrants, including due process that prohibits ethnic profiling, secret hearings or long-term detentions without charges being brought.
To not to decide is to decide. We can keep the current broken system, or we can move forward. Most observers agree that mass deportation is neither practical nor desirable. Something must be done to bring the 11 million illegal aliens residing in the country under the protection of law. In this way, illegal aliens can apply to become legal permanent residents and citizens and become contributing members of American society.
At the same time, any new law must discourage illegal immigration; otherwise in a few years the nation will once again have a large population of people here illegally, with all the attendant problems. That means a new law must establish a realistic and orderly way for legal immigration to take place. There are a variety of steps that can be taken: stronger border and immigration enforcement; more effective ways to verify the legal status of people applying for work; and expanding the number of work visas allowed so legal immigration can take place that meets U.S. labor demand.
Most immigrants – legal and illegal – are coming here to work or join family members already in the U.S. Their work ethic adds to the robustness of the American economy and their willingness to become involved in community and church activities adds to the vitality of our society. We need a new law that encourages legal immigration and embodies the ideals that have made America a special place of welcome for generations of immigrants.
[iii] Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero – and Perhaps Less, Pew Research Hispanic Center, May 3, 2012
[iv] Immigrants Pay Lower Fees to Send Money Home, Helping to Ease Poverty, New York Times, April 27, 2013.
[vi] Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Market, Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, April 2013; U.S. Legal Permanent Residents: 2012, Office of Immigration Statistics.
[vii] U.S. Birth Rate Falls to a Record Low; Decline Is Greatest Among Immigrants, Pew Research Center, November 29, 2012; Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Market
[viii] Immigration: The Effects on Low-Skilled and High Skilled Native-Born Workers, Linda Levine, Congressional Research Service, April 13, 2010.
[x] Estimated Impact on the Federal Budget for 2014 Through 2023, Congressional Budget Office, June 18, 2013