Originally published in The Fresno Bee, April 28, 2017
Would it surprise you to learn that illegal immigrants have the potential to ruin our country – if they leave?
In fact, mass deportation would abruptly collapse our agriculture, construction, and hospitality industries leading to a downward spiral of our economy.
Our government’s failure to address the needs of our economy through legal immigration has put us in this precarious situation. The refusal to create legal pathways to citizenship is driven primarily by fear, emotional reaction, and misinformation.
So how do we address our immigration problems? I will give you the answer, but first I’d like to share a few facts about illegal immigrants.
America has 11.5 million illegal immigrants, or 3.5% of our population. The Migration Policy Institute has estimated that 2.5 million live in California, which, at 6.3% of the state’s population, is the highest percentage of illegal immigrants in the country.
A large part of our state’s economy is generated through agriculture, construction, and tourism – industries that rely heavily on the labor of unauthorized workers. Those who point to the economic burden brought on by illegal immigrants tend to overlook the daily costs, such as higher prices for homes, groceries, and basic services, that each of us would incur without their everyday contributions.
As an example of the economic impact of cracking down on illegal immigration in California, we need look no further than the neighboring state of Arizona. The legislative drive to aggressively target illegal immigrants in Arizona in recent years – including E-Verify laws and the controversial SB 1070, which allows profiling of those who raise “reasonable suspicion” – resulted in a 40% decline in undocumented workers within five years of implementation.
Some of these programs are especially difficult and expensive to implement, placing unnecessary burdens on small business owners. Moody’s Analytics found that despite the new openings in the job market, less than 10% of jobs formerly held by illegal immigrants were filled by American workers. Likewise, Moody’s reports that the legislation has not altered the unemployment issues in Arizona; the overall rate remains higher than those of its neighbors.
Some commentators tend to paint illegal immigrants as “takers”– people who come to our country looking for taxpayer-funded social benefits. I believe the opposite is true; the vast majority of unauthorized workers come here looking for work, not handouts.
It is estimated by the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy that illegal immigrants pay approximately $11 billion in taxes. These taxes directly fund programs like Social Security. Since many of these workers must use fabricated or illegally-purchased Social Security numbers to qualify for work, they will never be able to collect these benefits.
Are most illegal immigrants in this country criminals? In reality, most illegal immigrants avoid criminal activity because they fear deportation. Nationwide, illegal immigrants make up less than 5% of the prison population, and of those 5%, many were incarcerated due to immigration violations rather than violent crimes.
By creating a pathway to citizenship, we would actually be able to combat crime more effectively by focusing our law enforcement resources on targeting dangerous, violent criminals rather than undocumented families.
We cannot afford for our country to follow the path of countries like Japan and Germany, which suffer from stagnation and population decline. Immigration drives the growth of our working-age population as our native-born population is aging and shrinking due to declining birth rates. As a result, we are reliant on immigration to support our entitlement programs; without immigrants, the already murky future of Social Security and Medicare would be much bleaker.
It is important to note, that the net migration from Mexico to the U.S. has declined in recent years, meaning more people are returning to Mexico than coming to our country.
What’s the solution?
We must protect our borders.
But we also have to recognize that building President Trump’s $25 billion wall would only partially stop the illegal flow of goods and people. Increasing the use of drones, satellites and other surveillance methods should be considered if we are to get serious about illegal crossings. We need to humanely address those who are currently here illegally, while modifying our immigration system to better benefit our economic needs.
We must allow illegal immigrants the chance to move out of the shadows.
If apprehended, current law requires deportation of those here illegally and denies them re-entry for 10 years. Deport those who have violent criminal histories, and allow those who remain to become citizens.
Our immigration program must be updated to reflect the needs of our country.
The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, yet is responsible for 25% of the global economy. To maintain this edge for decades to come, we must regularly evaluate our needs, determine if our workforce needs investors, manual laborers, or innovators, and adjust our immigration policy accordingly. We must also team up with Canada and Mexico to maintain our economic force against the rising powers across the Pacific, noting that Mexico is California’s largest trading partner.
It is clear to me that our immigration system is broken. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly recently said, “If lawmakers do not like the laws that we enforce, that we are charged to enforce, that we are sworn to enforce, then they should have the courage and the skill to change those laws. Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
It is necessary that our country’s leaders step over the division of party lines and work together to bring a solution that is in the best interest of our country and the people who desire to contribute to the U.S.
As an immigrant from Iran, I had firsthand experience navigating the immigration system nearly 40 years ago with my family. The laborious process was one that I was happy to undertake to become a proud U.S. citizen. I cherish this country and community along with all that it has afforded my family.
For my family, and for much of the world, America represents opportunity, hope, and equality. These are the values that continue to attract the world’s best minds. These are the values that have allowed our relatively young country to become one of the most powerful and desirable to live in. Ronald Reagan understood this when he said, “In America, our origins matter less than our destination, and that is what democracy is all about.”
Unfortunately, I am frequently reminded that if we were attempting to immigrate to America today, it would be far more challenging for my family and me to pursue a path to citizenship – especially considering our country of origin.
Ultimately, we will be judged as a society not on how we have treated the powerful and privileged, but the poor and the hopeless. Our visions of success and happiness should coexist with the values of human dignity, compassion, and justice.
God has blessed this country with abundance and security. It would be a shame to bar from our shores those with the means and brainpower to stimulate our economy, create jobs, and add to our competitive edge in the global market. In a world where the movement of goods, money, and information is fluid, the movement and migration of people is inevitable.
Many members of Congress recognize that bringing 11.5 million people out of the shadows of unlawfulness is not only good for our economy, it’s also good for our souls. We should support their efforts to fix this broken system.