PI Original Rep. Luis Gutierrez Friday April 18th, 2008, 4:42pm


In Congress these days, when I stand up to talk about immigration, I frequently feel like the dinner party guest who keeps bringing up controversial topics that his hosts would prefer not to discuss.

So while others at the table might like to chat about the weather or ...

In Congress these days, when I stand up to talk about immigration, I frequently feel like the dinner party guest who keeps bringing up controversial topics that his hosts would prefer not to discuss.

So while others at the table might like to chat about the weather or the Cubs or their kids, I just keep talking – about immigrants and their contributions to our nation and why progressives and the Democratic Party should be fighting every day for sensible and fair immigration reform. While my hosts squirm, I keep going on about the importance of legislation that clearly and squarely puts us on the side of justice and fairness for newcomers to our nation.

Of course, it isn’t entirely true that Congress doesn’t want to talk about immigration. Many of my colleagues, from Tom Tancredo to Lindsey Graham, would like nothing better than to talk about immigrants all day. After all, there’s an express ticket to cable news stardom for those who stand up in Congress and raise the specter of sneaky immigrants breaking our laws, taking our jobs, and trying to force hard-working Americans to speak Spanish.

But progressives should know that the debate is really very simple. No matter how often our opponents twist the statistics and paint immigrants as a threat, one unspinnable truth is clear: immigration in not only good for America, it is absolutely essential to our nation’s future success.

Here are a few important facts.

- Immigrants work. They constitute nearly 15 percent of America’s labor force and nearly half of the increase in the labor force between 1990 and 2000. Vital sectors of the economy, from agriculture to housing construction to health care would have face insurmountable labor shortages without immigrants.

- Immigrants boost everyone’s wages. Studies by the Aspen Institute and the Pew Hispanic Center showed that immigration “has a sizable beneficial effect on the wages of American-born workers.” They found that immigrants stimulate investment and spending and generally don’t compete for the same jobs as U.S. born workers.

- Immigrants pay taxes and help America’s bottom line. Even the Economic Report of the President states, “summing up the economic benefits and costs of immigration shows that over time, the benefits of immigration exceed the costs.” Numerous studies, including one by the National Academy of Sciences show that the tax payments of immigrants far outweigh the costs of services used.

- Immigrants defend our nation. Many of my colleagues are tremendously worried about immigration status – except when it comes to military service. Nearly ten percent of our enlisted men and women are non-citizens. The ultimate hypocrisy in today’s immigration debate is that so many policy makers are willing to have immigrants risk their lives in the military, yet are completely unwilling to improve their lives once they leave the military.

Many of my Republican friends would like to ignore the words of two men they typically idolize as guardians of our economy and friends of Wall Street: Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke. Again and again at hearings of my Financial Services Subcommittee, I have asked our Federal Reserve Chairmen specific questions about the roles of immigrants in our economy. They both have regularly talked about the necessary labor they provide, and Greenspan particularly has noted their importance to the future solvency of our Social Security system. So the next time you hear someone rail against immigrants, ask them who will keep our teetering Social Security system paying checks to retirees if we refuse to let young, productive, and hard-working immigrants pay into the system.

Since opponents of sensible immigration laws like anecdotes better than facts, I’ll put it this way: if you doubt what immigrants mean to America, just take a walk with me down 26th Street in Chicago.

The history of our city is the story of immigrants investing in and building neighborhoods and making them thrive. Immigrants from Eastern Europe built a vibrant and productive Pilsen and Little Village. We were glad that Poles and Bohemians built those neighborhoods. When they left, they were replaced by Mexicans, who made sure that 26th Street and the communities that surround it would not wither and die. The result? 26th Street is now the longest uninterrupted commercial district in Chicago, generating sales tax revenue that builds schools and pays teachers and police officers and fire fighters who serve every person in every part of Chicago.

So what is so hard about passing some laws that honor immigrants’ hard work, keep America safe, and keep families together?

During the 110th Congress, I introduced the only bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill with my colleague, Congressman Jeff Flake, from Arizona. Our bill would create a system that allows undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and work here legally and safely and humanely. It regulates future flows of workers, and it greatly enhances our border security. It creates a system predicated on family values by developing laws that keep families strong and, most importantly, keeps husbands and wives, parents and children together.

Passing sensible immigration reform is good policy and good politics. So how do we win?

We need more engaged progressives who are willing to stand up for what is right. We need labor unions to keep leading the charge. We need grassroots efforts to register immigrants to vote and to turn them out on Election Day. In the end, democracy is about numbers. The side that can count the highest wins. And the numbers are on our side.

Hard-working immigrants are turning red states blue. They are electing leaders from school boards to the U.S. Senate. They are standing up and marching and speaking with one voice. Immigrants will remember on Election Day who heard them, respected them, and fought for them. If progressives are the ones listening and fighting, then not only will immigrants benefit, so will all of America.

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