07/29/2011

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Must Be Priority for Nation

The debt ceiling debate is consuming all of the oxygen in Washington these days, but there’s another economic issue that Congress would be wise to resolve – and soon, before more damage is done to our recovering but still brittle economy. That issue is immigration reform.

The damage is coming from misguided state laws designed to punish undocumented immigrants and those who provide any sort of aid to them. So it was a welcome sign that Sen. Chuck Schumer convened a hearing earlier this week on the economic arguments for reform.

This effort to revive immigration reform comes at a critical juncture. We can only hope it leads to a rational, fact-based debate free of the fear-mongering myths about Latino immigrants peddled by nativist organizations.

In the absence of a federal solution, more states likely will follow the path of Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Utah and South Carolina, all highly conservative states that have passed their own immigration laws.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is part of a coalition of civil rights groups challenging these laws in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Courts have already blocked key parts of laws in Arizona, Utah and Georgia, and we’re confident all of these laws will eventually be overturned as unconstitutional usurpations of federal power.

But in the meantime, anti-immigrant hardliners should be careful what they wish for.

In Alabama, where Gov. Robert Bentley recently signed the harshest anti-immigrant law in the country, the state agriculture commissioner reports that tomatoes and squash are rotting in the fields. It’s because Latino farmworkers are already abandoning their jobs – even before the law takes effect in September. And there is increasing worry that in Tuscaloosa, the recovery from a tornado that destroyed much of the city in April will be stalled because of a lack of construction workers.

Across the state line, the Georgia Agribusiness Council has reported $300 million in farm losses due to a lack of workers, and that state’s law just took effect on July 1. The economic toll could reach $1 billion.

The other effects are easily predictable: business losses, reduced tax revenues at all levels of government and higher costs to taxpayers for enforcement of these laws. Consumers, too, could end up paying higher prices for fresh produce as farmers find themselves without labor to pick their crops or are forced to increase wages. These economic consequences don’t even count the human rights abuses and very real suffering of innocent children and others that will occur because of the laws.

So what do we gain?

Those pushing these laws contend that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans at a time of high unemployment. This is a naïve way of looking at our complex economy. And it is not true.

Economists have a name for this idea: the “lump of labor fallacy.” It’s the notion that there is a fixed amount of labor available to workers. The reality is that the 8 million or so undocumented workers in this country increase economic output. They pay taxes. They rent or buy homes. They buy groceries and cars. They go to the movies. All of these things increase the number of available jobs. And, they supply inexpensive labor, filling many low-skill jobs that are not attractive to U.S.-born workers. 

Study after study has shown that immigrants do not “steal’ jobs from Americans. Labor economist Giovanni Peri wrote, as a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, in August 2010: “Data show that, on net, immigrants expand the U.S. economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity. Consistent with previous research, there is no evidence that these effects take place at the expense of jobs for workers born in the United States.”

And former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told the U.S. Senate in 2009 that undocumented immigrants have “made a significant contribution to the growth of our economy.”

A UCLA study in 2010 found, in fact, that deporting the undocumented immigrant labor force en masse would shrink the American economy by as much as $2.6 trillion over 10 years.

The cold, hard truth is that undocumented workers are woven deeply and intricately into our economy. They comprise at least half – and more likely three-quarters – of our country’s agricultural labor force. The effort to drive them away is not only bad medicine, it’s economic poison. Georgia farmers know this. They’ve seen no rush by U.S.-born workers to fill the stoop-labor jobs abandoned by Latinos in recent days.

Illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle, and we are spending record amounts to beef up security at the border. The only reason to not provide a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants who are here already is bigotry. And that’s not acceptable.

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