WASHINGTON — Wherever we were born and however we got here, workers need certain basic protections and opportunities to provide for our families and fully contribute to the American economy.
By legalizing the status and strengthening the bargaining power of immigrant workers, comprehensive immigration reform would be good for all workers, both native-born and newcomer.
Comprehensive reform means a realistic, balanced response to the presence of millions of undocumented workers in our midst. It would acknowledge the need to regain control of the immigration process while at the same time appreciating — not demonizing — this important segment of our labor force, whose members do some of our nation’s toughest jobs.
Under our current, broken immigration system, we essentially have two economies. In the regular economy most of us inhabit, workers secure in their citizenship or immigration status can fight back against egregious employer abuses — unsafe working conditions, stolen pay, sexual harassment — without fear of arrest and deportation. In the underground economy of the undocumented, workers must suffer in silence.
The two worlds are merging, but in the wrong direction. Workers in the open economy are losing rights and leverage, in part because of competition from the hidden economy. Wages have stagnated and opportunities for advancement been blocked. Truly comprehensive immigration reform would create one labor market that works for everyone.
Contrary to fears often stoked for political gain, immigrants don’t take jobs from the native-born. Instead, several studies have found that immigrant and native employment support each other.
Untrained workers from abroad often initially take low-skill jobs that free up those already here for better-paying work: an immigrant who cleans up a construction site creates more jobs for carpenters and plumbers; a home health aid from overseas allows the adult child of an ailing parent to return to the workforce.
Immigrants also create jobs. The courage and determination that drive the foreign-born to our shores against often daunting odds are the key characteristics of an entrepreneur.
From corner groceries to software companies, immigrants found American businesses every day. Comprehensive immigration reform would unleash even more of that entrepreneurial energy by removing barriers the undocumented now face.
Immigrants are consumers. And because many initially have low incomes, they tend to spend money quickly and on necessities in their communities, boosting local businesses, which then hire more workers.
The comprehensive immigration overhaul passed by the Senate last year, while far from perfect, was a good step forward. It would tighten regulation of contractors who recruit foreign workers to crack down on abuses and ensure labor rights. It even created a fund to pay for summer and year-round employment of low-income youth — both immigrant and native-born.
Some politicians who oppose comprehensive immigration reform claim to be looking out for American workers. But their records prove otherwise. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a leading opponent of comprehensive reform, grades members of Congress based on their immigration votes. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor organization, grades members based on their support of pro-worker legislation.
In recent years, some of the highest grades from FAIR were awarded to U.S. representatives who received the lowest labor grades, thanks to their opposition to measures like extended unemployment compensation and equal pay for women. America was built on immigration and can only continue to thrive if we continue to open our doors to eager newcomers. The vast majority of immigrants — both documented and undocumented — come to this country to work, and work hard. Meanwhile, native-born American workers have been losing economic ground for decades, partly because unscrupulous employers are driving down wages by exploiting the undocumented.
All workers will be better off if we raise up the undocumented from the shadows of the underground economy through comprehensive immigration reform.
William Rice is a policy consultant with Americans for Democratic Action. Readers may write to him at ADA, 1629 K Street NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20006; website: www.adaaction.org.