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MN2020 - A Minnesota Immigration Enterprise Zone
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A Minnesota Immigration Enterprise Zone

June 02, 2014 By Héctor García, Fellow

It is rightfully and proudly said that the United States is a nation of laws. Nevertheless, laws are not static; they must be revised to adjust to changing realities. Circumstances and laws that negatively affect a large number of human beings need reevaluation.

Globalization and international law created circumstances which make immigration reform essential. Yet, partisan politics and limited public understanding of context have prevented Congress from carrying out that reform. It is therefore appropriate for Minnesota, as a state laboratory of democracy, to consider an “immigration enterprise zone.”

Current globalization is a game-changer of our own making. The U.S. and the West brought about global changes, including increases in flows of information, products, services, investment and labor. To optimize those flows, the U.S. started a series of international free trade agreements--the first was the North American Free Trade Agreement signed into law by Canada, Mexico and the U.S. in 1993.

NAFTA and other agreements brought down barriers to the mentioned flows. But it hurt many U.S. manufacturing workers and upset the balance of labor. Much has been documented the impact north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

NAFTA’s promoters claimed that one objective of the agreement was the growth of the Mexican middle class and Attorney General Reno said that NAFTA would reduce the number of undocumented persons in the U.S. by two thirds. Instead the number of Mexican poor doubled and undocumented in the U.S. tripled. There was no system in place to help Mexican poor, small business owners and small farmers take advantage of the agreement’s opportunities. Nor were there protections against the increase in U.S. competition. Those with adequate resources took full advantage of the opportunities. The multiplying poor watched as the Mexican economy and number of millionaires grew; there are now 11 billionaires in Mexico and one of them was until recently the wealthiest man in the world.

The consequences have been daunting. There are millions of undocumented immigrants from farming regions living in the United States. These workers, their spouses at home and their children carry out economic and social activities but they live in the shadows. These living conditions lead to serious and costly social and health problems. There are clear indications that the problems are increasing in detriment not only to the undocumented but to the whole society.

Some undocumented in Minnesota drive without a license because the law does not allow them to get one. This represents a threat to their own safety and that of others as well as a considerable limitation to their potential contributions. This legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers considered a bill would have authorized a license for the undocumented. Though the proposal  would have alleviated some problems, the proposed license would identify the holder as undocumented, which could increase fear over possible deportation. The bill didn't make it far.

The above is an example of incongruent circumstances derived from the absence of immigration reform. Living underground makes the undocumented prey to theft, trafficking and exploitation, physical and verbal abuse; it makes them vulnerable to mental and physical illness as well as the marketing and recruiting efforts of drug cartels. Children live in anxiety over the possibility that parents might be deported.

There is a lack of public awareness of what pushed the immigrants to not follow the established legal process. This is not conducive to factual analysis and decision-making.

In addition to these negative results, there is a cost of opportunity represented by the immigrants’ young median age. Minnesota faces the dilemma of an aging population, escalating costs of entitlements, health care and education plus inadequate supply to meet the needs of its future workforce; there is no long-term solution to this dilemma except that offered by the immigrants’ youth.

Even without management of their potential added-value, the undocumented bring a great deal to the state’s table. According to reports by The Immigration Policy Center and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, it is estimated that in 2010 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota represented approximately 85,000 individuals, of which about 60,000 were part of the workforce and paid $81.7 million in state and local taxes. They had a buying power of more than $5 billion. If these immigrants left, Minnesota would lose $4.4 billion in economic activity and $2 billion in gross state product.

We cannot reverse globalization nor isolate ourselves from its effects. Since the gridlock in Congress does not show indications of change, it would be wise to consider a Minnesota immigration enterprise zone similar to the one proposed 14 years ago by then Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa.

Leaders in key sectors, including the Legislature, could begin a discussion and research on viable characteristics for such an enterprise zone. These characteristics could include offering to participants in the program regular driver’s licenses and other legal rights (with no authorization to vote as is the case with legal foreign residents), creating a guest-worker program tied to education and training, full human rights, and a request from Congress for exemption from federal immigration quotas. CLAC can lead this initiative through its advisory and convening capacity and through the concepts it has been proposing for several years.

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