Point of View

Immigration reform: 4 reasons a path to citizenship is a no-brainer

July 10, 2013 

20110715 US immigration


The U.S. Senate has voted in favor of an immigration reform bill that combines additional border security and interior enforcement with a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Now the bill heads to the Republican-led House of Representatives. While the politics may be familiar, the facts behind the bill are different from what most people think.

First: Undocumented immigrants want to assimilate and be recognized as contributors to North Carolina communities Consider Eduardo, an undocumented immigrant I interviewed in 2003 while I was writing a book on immigration and race in the South. Eduardo left Guatemala in 2000 because he could not earn enough in agriculture there to support himself. In North Carolina, he worked harvesting tobacco, cotton and cucumbers before starting a job on the line in a poultry processing plant.

Eduardo said the opportunity to legalize could solve a host of problems he faces – from not being able to work legally, to not being able to get a driver’s license to drive to work, to always having to be ready “to run if Immigration comes”. His hopes are familiar: “I want to be a good citizen here. I want to follow the rules and the laws of this country. I love this country. It has opened its doors to me and given me opportunities that I didn’t have in Guatemala.” There, he said, low-skilled people can’t find decent-paying jobs.

Eduardo understands that some people don’t like his presence. But he feels he has no other choice. He must support his family back home – and now his wife and U.S.-born daughter are here, too.

Second: The current legislation offers no easy amnesty to Eduardo or anyone else. To sell a pathway to citizenship to Senate Republicans (14 of whom voted for the bill), Democrats agreed to a record-breaking $40 billion to pay for the toughest border security and immigration enforcement efforts our country has ever seen.

Undocumented immigrants will also have to pay fines and back taxes, prove they have no criminal record and jump through myriad difficult bureaucratic hurdles as part of a 13-year (or longer) path to citizenship.

Many will never make it due to the bureaucratic hurdles alone. Of those who manage to get to the new “registered provisional immigrant” status, many may languish there indefinitely, ineligible for most public subsidies (including health care).

Third: Undocumented immigrants are staying, whether the legislation passes or not. Deporting all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here would cost hundreds of billions of dollars – thousands of dollars from every taxpayer – and involve the largest, most intrusive increase in law enforcement in our nation’s history.

Moreover, the Mexican Migration Project shows that past increases in border enforcement have only stabilized, not decreased, the total population of undocumented immigrants. It turns out that while cracking down does encourage some documented immigrants to return to Mexico, it convinces their undocumented counterparts that going home is too costly and risky. (How could they ever return?)

Fourth: Since they’re staying, legalizing newcomers is the best way to accelerate their assimilation into the U.S. mainstream. New research from the University of California-Irvine shows that, in Los Angeles, the child of a Mexican-immigrant mother without legal status attains, on average, just 11.5 years of schooling – in other words, he or she drops out of high school. But a child of comparable background whose Mexican mother has been able to legalize her status finishes, on average, 13 years – enough to graduate from high school and get some college-level training. Legalization also raised the educational levels of these immigrants’ grandchildren.

Making the path toward citizenship unnecessarily long and cumbersome won’t teach undocumented immigrants the lessons you might think. People who have risked deportation and even death for their families’ well-being already know more about life’s lessons than we credit them for. What it will do is harm their children – many of them born in North Carolina. Such costs inevitably filter out to the rest of us.

So whatever the rhetoric, the work ahead for the Congress is clear. When immigrants like Eduardo can live and work here legally, both they and their children are more likely to overcome disadvantages and, as immigrants have always done, become strong contributors to our communities. That is what North Carolina needs.

Helen B. Marrow, an Edgecombe County native, is an assistant professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Tufts University.

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