Thursday, April 26

US should legalize undocumented workers

The move could boost economy, UCLA study says, as well as help immigrants get better jobs

On Monday, The Bruin ran an article in which a UCLA professor made the case for legalization of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers currently residing in the U.S.

According to a study by UCLA’s own Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, an associate professor of Chicana and Chicano studies, this legalization would pump $1.5 trillion into our economy over 10 years.

Alternatively, intensified enforcement and deportation would cost $2.6 trillion over the same period.

This study comes with the waning of the health care debate, giving way to what will probably be another round of protracted partisan bickering, this time over immigration reform. The Obama administration has pledged to pass immigration legislation before the end of 2010. Given Hinojosa-Ojeda’s numbers, legalization should be included in that legislation.

But what would legalization mean?

The GOP stance on the legalization of illegal immigrants, “amnesty” in the party’s words, is that it would set a dangerous precedent encouraging future illegal immigration. Foreigners would be enticed to mill about on U.S. soil illegally with the knowledge that they would, in time, become legal residents of some kind, and with relatively little cost to themselves.

Heather Boushey, a Center for American Progress economist, has responded to this “opening the floodgates” argument. Undocumented workers, she said, are here because of a demand for cheap labor, regardless of their legal status. Like American workers, they’re tethered to the economy. Legalizing them won’t draw them in any more than further penalties, costly border patrol and walls would keep them out.

Another question is the source of the projected $1.5 trillion. Hinojosa-Ojeda said legalization will drive up wages for the country’s entire workforce, citizen or otherwise, and tax revenues will increase accordingly.

These projections aren’t merely speculative, either, because a similar economic boom occurred in 1986, when the Reagan administration granted amnesty to some 3 million undocumented immigrants.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act saw newly legalized workers move into occupations in which they wouldn’t have to be paid under the table. This freedom to enter a profession beyond menial labor is paramount to replacing the idea that undocumented workers are a lower class of society.

Under the current system, even advanced skills can’t win them jobs, a problem that will be faced, for instance, by the population of undocumented students at UCLA.

A major problem with legalization, of course, is that it would put 12 million people on an accelerated path to citizenship, or at least to a few rights usually reserved for citizens, while legal immigrants pay thousands of dollars and wait years for a similar opportunity. In the interest of fairness, the provisions of legalization would have to apply to everyone, with illegal immigrants waiting longer for full-fledged citizenship.

Another question of fairness is one raised by geography: Granting amnesty to only those currently residing in the U.S. would prove disproportionately beneficial to illegal immigrants from Mexico. People who would willingly immigrate to the U.S. illegally but live in more distant nations would miss legalization simply because they were unable to cross the border years ago.

Anti-immigration zealots won’t be short of gripes when the new immigration debate gets underway, but what ultimately dooms the study’s fiscal projections may be reform itself. The House bill on comprehensive immigration reform introduced in December by Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) emphasizes a renewed effort to enforce immigration laws.

Speaking at a press conference in Washington, Ortiz said of his bill, “This is about ending illegal immigration, and to do so, we need to set up a thorough employment verification system that will prevent employers from abusing the system.”

The employment verification system to which Ortiz refers is an acknowledgment that, under the current system, the employers of undocumented workers are almost never prosecuted, allowing the demand for those workers to exist undisturbed.

This demand would, in theory, cease under comprehensive reform, eliminating the greatest impetus for illegal immigration. Without access to cheap labor, however, corporations would suffer, and Hinojosa-Ojeda’s $1.5 trillion would probably decline.

If this sounds like an advocation of the exploitative practices that made illegal immigration such a problem in the first place, it is. But those practices aren’t going away. There will always be those willing to cross the border to work for substandard wages, and making them illegal has never done us any good.

If we want our undocumented neighbors to have a chance at being anything more than a shadowed underclass, we need to reform the suppressive laws we’ve placed on them.

E-mail Dosaj at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.