The tide seems to be turning in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, despite populist trends that might suggest otherwise. President Barack Obama’s ability in 2010 to hammer out reform has been helped by some unusual suspects. Democrats, already on board the reform bandwagon, are even seeing some conservatives rally for similar reform measures. These new voices, along with recent polling that puts the majority of the American public in favor of a legalization process for our 12 million undocumented immigrants, bodes well for a nation in desperate need of a new immigration policy. This president, unlike his predecessor, will not shy away from needed reform as it is the right thing to do economically, the right thing to do politically, and the right thing to do morally.
In the throes of America’s recession, Obama must do everything in his power to weigh the fiscal pros and cons of any policy decision. Immigration, unsurprisingly, brings with it formidable fiscal implications. Keeping immigrants here or sending them home can save or cost taxpayers dearly, depending on what course is chosen.
A study conducted last month by University of California, Los Angeles, Professor Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, for example, finds that any deportation plan of America’s undocumented immigrants would cost our country’s gross domestic product a whopping $2.6 trillion over the next 10 years. Conversely, if we embrace comprehensive immigration reform, we add $1.5 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product over the next 10 years. Hinojosa-Ojeda also projected that the economy would benefit from a temporary worker program, which would raise the GDP by $792 billion.
The economic case is clear. Immigrants who become citizens consistently pursue higher-paying jobs and higher education, spend more and provide higher tax revenue. Just imagine what 12 million newly documented Americans could do for the economy. The legalization process also brings economic benefits like the retention of remittances. Reform will reunite families separated by our immigration system and keep monies in the U.S., instead of having workers send substantial portions of their salary to their family members abroad. As an example of the potential, U.S. remittances to Latin America alone totaled almost $46 billion in 2008. Of that, Mexico received almost $24 billion. Reducing remittances offers an obvious potential cash infusion for our economy, as billions of dollars currently being sent overseas would instead be spent in American shops and restaurants, creating jobs and helping to get our economy going.
Politically, reform is the right thing to do, which may explain why immigration reform is a bipartisan issue, visible in former President George W. Bush’s reform attempts and more recently Sarah Palin’s politically savvy promises. The communities most impacted by comprehensive immigration reform — Hispanic, Asian and African — are quickly becoming the voting majority in many districts throughout this country. By 2050, Hispanic-Americans are projected to constitute 25 percent of the total population, making Hispanics the largest population group. The fastest growing race group will continue to be Asian and Pacific Islanders, with annual growth rates exceeding 4 percent and increasing to 41 million total population by 2050.
The politics of immigration reform, then, must reflect the ever-changing politics of our population. As America becomes ever more diverse, elected officials will rightly move policies in a direction to serve that diverse constituency. Diversification will happen and we can be on the right side of history or we can ignore its eventuality and muck things up for the next generation by failing to act early enough. Obama gets this — so too does much of the country. The noise of a few angry opponents, therefore, must not get in the way of what’s good for the majority.
Lastly, there is moral merit to remembering that we are indeed a nation of immigrants. Long before the spotlight fell on Mexican immigrants as the primary newcomer and scapegoat, it fell heavily on Jewish, Irish, Chinese and myriad other ethnic groups, each one taking their turn. For centuries, America sounded the clarion call to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” welcoming them to our shores. Comprehensive immigration reform will not widen or overextend this welcome; it will ensure a fair and legal process for this tradition to nobly continue.
The key to keeping intact the Statue of Liberty’s credo, then, is to allow new Americans, from Central America to Central Asia, the same rights and opportunities afforded the new Americans who landed on Ellis Island from Central Europe. Entire families once emigrated from Europe; it is only fair to allow others — who often wait up to 20 years to be reunited with their loved ones — the same treatment.
This is the year for comprehensive immigration reform. Left to future presidents or future Congresses, the number of undocumented immigrants will only increase and the visa waits will only get longer. Meanwhile, we lose an opportunity to do what’s right economically, politically and morally. On all accounts the case is clear: Reform now.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) is chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Sonia Manzano is an author and actress best known for her role as Maria on “Sesame Street.”