By Erol Kekic
Over the course of their four 90-minute debates, the U.S. Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates got only one question about our nation’s immigration policy. Moreover, in last night’s final debate, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney chose to mention this urgent moral – and economic – issue.
Wrapped into Lorraine Osorio’s question at the second Presidential debate were both the moral and economic themes that are inherent in immigration policy: the issue of “what to “do with undocumented immigrants” who are “currently living here as productive members of society.”
Phrased just a bit differently, “Are immigrants to the United States a problem to be solved, or an important part of the solution to our nation’s economic challenges?”
If the latter, hasn’t U.S. immigration policy deserved much greater attention in this campaign? Clearly, yes, it has.
The Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group of more than 450 mayors and business leaders, recently published a report showing that immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses as the U.S. born. One in every 10 people employed at a privately owned business in the United States works at an immigrant-owned company. These companies contribute more than $775 billion dollars of revenue annually to the U.S. gross domestic product. And as the report, “Open for Business,” points out, immigrant owned businesses pay $126 billion in payroll every year – creating and sustaining the jobs that the candidates have talked so much about.
But these new Americans have gotten short shrift this election season for their contribution to the U.S. economy. Lip service has been paid to the “importance of Latino and other immigrant voters,” yet neither candidate has been effectively addressing concerns that this growing group of voters experiences on a daily basis, issues such as forced separation from family members, fair pay for fair work, and protection from arbitrary arrest and detention (looking at you, Arizona), to name but a few.
President Obama did announce the “deferred action for childhood arrivals” (DACA) process in August, allowing young adults (DREAMers) who were brought to the United States as kids and who meet strict criteria to remain in the country legally for a period of two years (if their applications are approved). This is a welcome development for those who have grown up as Americans and know no other country as their own, but is still far a far cry from the legislative reforms that are needed to provide a pathway to legal status and eventual citizenship for all undocumented individuals.
My organization works with these young individuals, who are Americans in every way except for that little important detail – of having access to a pathway to legal status in the United States. These smart, community-minded young people are either completing high school or college, have served in our military or have in other ways contributed to the United States. Asking them to leave now is both morally reprehensible and economically tone deaf, given the investment they want to and will make in this country. As the United States continues to struggle to fill high tech jobs and increasingly reaches out to foreign cadre, doesn’t it make sense to start by utilizing the potential of these young people already here at home? Offering them a pathway to legal status is a win-win solution and one that must rise above the political rhetoric.
As a nation, we expect our next President to champion real and economically beneficial programs, including meaningful, humane reform of our broken and outdated immigration system. It is both the right and the smart thing to do.
Erol Kekic is Director of the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program, based in New York City.