Barack Obama’s first trip to Mexico this week will not be spent enjoying the famous Mexican surf and sun. He and Mexican President Felipe Calderon have a series of
difficult issues they must address. Following Calderon's crackdown on
the Mexican narcotics cartels, ...
Barack Obama’s first trip to Mexico this week will not be spent enjoying the famous Mexican surf and sun. He and Mexican President Felipe Calderon have a series of difficult issues they must address. Following Calderon's crackdown on the Mexican narcotics cartels, violence has surged in the country. Trade skirmishes have broken out between the U.S. and Mexico. And then there are the thorny issues along our 2,000-mile contiguous border, with drugs and immigrants moving north and rivers of guns flowing south. It's safe to say there will be no time for snorkeling.
The president is facing some mighty tough issues on this trip and last week he demonstrated that he actually is “Chicago-tough." The White House made headlines when it reiterated that Obama is serious about addressing our broken immigration system during his first year in office, including an earned path to citizenship for the undocumented.
Pundits marveled that even our Blackberry-addicted, multi-tasking president would try to take on this divisive issue so early in his first term and during a recession. But there are some very good reasons to act on immigration reform this year. Hopefully, he and Calderon will discuss the shared stake our nations have in pursuing real immigration solutions.
Border and National Security: The cable news talking heads have been having a field day discussing border drug violence, but less attention has been devoted to the fact that our broken immigration system is only strengthening the narco-traffickers. As we have “hardened” our borders with fences and an increasing number of border guards, the smuggling of illegal immigrants has passed over to the control of more violent and more professional criminal gangs. Law enforcement officials in Arizona estimate that human trafficking is a $2 billion-a-year enterprise in that state alone. Creating a rational visa system for low wage workers would drain this swamp and allow law enforcement to focus on drug smugglers and terrorist threats.
Economic Recovery: As long as unscrupulous employers can exploit undocumented workers and use them to pull down the floor on wages, American workers will have a hard time regaining their footing in this economy. That is why both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, the two major labor coalitions in the U.S., agreed this week to work together on immigration reform.
There is a fiscal benefit to comprehensive reform as well. It has been estimated by the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation that such a plan would create between $48 and $66 billion in new tax and fee revenues by bringing off-the-book workers into the tax system.
Enforcement Alone is Not Working: In the past 15 years we have gone from 4,000 to 20,000 border guards. We are spending some $18 billion a year on border, customs, and immigration enforcement. The 700 miles of border fence cost well over a million dollars a mile. Deportations surged to 357,000 last year alone, the vast majority workers with no accusation of criminal activity. Our federal courts and federal prosecutors are overwhelmed with small-time immigration cases.
The increased expenditures and the souring economy have significantly reduced the inflow of unauthorized immigrants into the U.S., but this has not begun to address the issue of the 12 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the country, nor their estimated 30 million U.S. citizen and legal immigrant relatives.
Mass deportation is so impractical and so expensive (estimated to cost at least $206 billion over 5 years) that no one in public life is seriously recommending it. With reduced inflows of illegal immigration, we now have some “breathing room” to address those who are already here in a rational way.
Broken Families: During the last year we deported 357,000 people from the United States, approximately 1,000 a day. Many had U.S. citizen spouses or children, and the human cost has been horrific. A recent Government Accountability Office report estimated that we have deported the parents of 100,000 U.S. citizen children in recent years. A Pew Hispanic Center report released this week states that 73 percent of the children of undocumented immigrants are U.S. citizens, and they are growing up in poverty.
Baby Boomers are now retiring at a steady clip and demand is rising for skilled workers (not to mention their Social Security contributions). Yet at the same time we are creating a new underclass of parentless children who will be unprepared to enter our productive workforce.
President Obama inherited a lot of very difficult problems, from the economy, to two wars, to 46 million uninsured Americans. But if he is really “Chicago-tough” enough to tackle those issues as well as the crisis of our broken immigration system, then I hope he can count on us to have his back!
Joshua Hoyt is the Director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Here are his previous Progress Illinois columns:
"How The Democrats And The DCCC Finally Got Immigration Right," March 16, 2008.
"For The Love Of A Demographer," May 13, 2008