Why we need immigration reform – now

Many people have been surprised by President Obama’s willingness to include immigration policy in his first year’s agenda. The White House clearly favors Comprehensive Immigration Reform that includes some form of legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants. The President understands that we can’t punish and deport our way out of the immigration crisis.

Opponents will argue that we cannot add more permanent residents while so many Americans are unemployed. This is an intuitive position, but the wrong one not just for economic growth, but also for the country’s cohesion. In fact, the opposite is true. Immigrants – both professional and blue-collar, authorized and not – expand our economy as well as our civic and cultural resources.

Restricting immigration would make sense if the economy was a zero sum game, with no flexibility or room for growth. In that case, we could protect jobs for current residents by preventing immigrants from taking them. But many factors influence economic growth, and immigrants, whether apple pickers or scientists, have revived declining cities.

A report by the William C. Velasquez Ins at UCLA makes the case that legalizing millions of undocumented people is the most effective stimulus plan we’ve got. Legalization would create $4.5 to $5.4 billion in net tax revenue alone, not to mention the nearly million new jobs and $30-36 billion in personal wealth it could generate. Those jobs would largely go to native-born Americans.

My own father is a great example of how this works. He came to the States as a metallurgical engineer in 1971, as the industrial economy was starting to shrink. He held and lost multiple jobs throughout the ‘70’s, and then started a small business in light construction. He employed dozens of people, none of them immigrants. After he died, my mother took over for eight years. When she retired, their first employee bought the business and still owns it five years later. My dad didn’t steal a business – it didn’t exist before him. He didn’t steal a loan – the bank is happy to make more loans. He expanded the economy and created opportunity for native-born workers with low and medium skill levels.

You don’t have to be an engineer to do this. The economist James Holt estimates that each farmworker creates an average of three new local jobs in packaging, shipping and sales.

Some immigration opponents will hold up black and low-income white communities to justify their position, but because our labor market is so segregated, immigrants generally compete with each other for jobs, not with native-born Americans. Walk into a high-end restaurant in any city and observe the racial hierarchy – white people at the living wage jobs in the front of the house, brown people in the dangerous, dead end jobs at the back of the house, and black people shut out altogether, relegated to fast food.

In The Accidental American, I describe the efforts of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United to transform the restaurant industry – the largest private sector employer in the country, projecting millions of new jobs and profits in the next two years. The organization, founded by immigrant restaurant workers in New York after September 11, organizes in cities like New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and Portland, Maine policies so that all workers can benefit from the industry’s growth.

That alliance, as well as the growth itself, depends on a highly engaged, legally enfranchised immigrant population – two good reasons to speed up rather than slow down on reform.

Rinku Sen is the Executive Director of the Applied Research Center and the publisher of ColorLines magazine.