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History Lesson on Immigration Reform

July 15, 2013 By Héctor García, Fellow

Immigration Reform legislation, passed by the Senate, now faces strong opposition in the House of Representatives. This longstanding and controversial issue has generated a great deal of misinformation, confusion and fear.

Fear of new immigrants is not new. The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 Act were largely aimed at restricting the arrival of Southern and Eastern Europeans, especially Jews, Italians, and Slavs, who came in large numbers in the 1890s. Prior to 1875, there was no immigration law in the U.S. The less-than-ideal economic conditions, which we have experienced since 2007, have magnified the fear of immigrants. To further complicate the issue, the most recent wave of immigrants did not originate mostly from Europe; the majority is made up of Latin Americans, Asians and Africans. Most immigrants are documented but many are not; others are political or religious refugees. Refugees receive information on the US before arriving and, once here, various forms of assistance; immigrants do not. Most Americans mistakenly make no distinction between these two groups.

The Census of 2010 estimated there was a population of nearly 40 million foreign-born persons in the U.S., or 13% of the total. It is estimated that 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the country; most came from Mexico and Central America.

Managing the labor flows of globalization is essential to produce the best possible results. The intent of the reform bill is to adequately manage immigration. Why has undocumented immigration been ignored until now?

The Economist magazine's May 8th 2013 article, Welfare and Amnesty by W.W. Houston quotes Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman in a lecture titled "What is America?" as stating the following: “Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.”

The problem with this narrow economic perspective is that, when millions of persons live in society’s shadows, a multitude of other problems come to the surface. The American public, in the midst of a post-9/11 reality, is naturally anxious about national security especially since it is not adequately informed about the international reasons for undocumented migration.

A massive flow of poverty-stricken persons is taking place not only in this hemisphere; it is also moving from Asia and Africa to European and other affluent nations as part of the flows of labor, capital and trade caused by globalization. This process was launched by the nations of the West led by the United States. This process has created the conditions, which lead workers in nations with a significant degree of poverty to move to wealthy nations, such as Mexicans and Central Americans to the United States.

Projections made public by the Congressional Budget Office earlier this month showed that immigration reform would reduce the national deficit by nearly $200 billion after a decade and $700 billon over the two decades after enactment. CBO added that this law would boost the national economic output by 3.3 percent during the first decade and by 5.4 over both decades. UCLA Professor Hinojosa-Ojeda reported that immigration reform would increase US GDP by $1.5 trillion in ten years after enactment. He examined the impact of the hypothetical removal or exist of all unauthorized immigrants: the economic result would be a $2.6 trillion decrease in estimated GDP growth over the next decade.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently pointed out that: “Forty years ago there were five workers for every retiree. Now there are three. If present trends continue, there will be only two workers for every retiree by the year 2030. No economy can survive on a ratio of 2 workers per retiree. But because new immigrants are on average younger than native-born Americans, they'll help bring that ratio back down. They're needed so we can continue to have a vibrant economy.”

It has been said that change is inevitable but growth is optional. We can either choose to optimize the unsettling changes of globalization or choose to react in fear to them. The former can disclose new opportunities and adventure while the consequences of the latter will increase the pain and cost. Immigrants flourishing in the fertile ground of democratic principles and institutions have represented throughout this nation’s life the goose that lays the golden eggs. Let’s not kill the goose because of fear.

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