Although the future of immigration reform is uncertain, continuing the status quo is not a good option.
The heart of the problem is the estimated 11 million people who are currently in the United States illegally.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 59 percent are from Mexico and more than 15 percent are from Central American or Caribbean nations. Eighty-six percent have been in the U.S. for at least eight years.
As a practical matter, apprehending and deporting 11 million people would cost more than the country can afford. For example, the Center for American Progress has estimated the cost at $200 billion. However, even if the money were available, mass deportation is not a viable option.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides as follows: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
On its face, that language means that children of illegal immigrants are U.S. citizens if those children were born in this country. As a result, they cannot be deported.
Some scholars argue that the Fourteenth Amendment was not intended to provide citizenship to children born in this country to parents who are here illegally. However, that interpretation is a minority view. Converting that minority position into a majority one would require either the reversal of longstanding precedent or the approval of a constitutional amendment by two-thirds of each house of Congress and by three-fourths of the states.
Neither of those approaches is likely to succeed.
According to a poll by Latino Decisions, 62 percent of undocumented Latino immigrants have at least one child who was born in the U.S. and, as a result, the child is an American citizen. In addition, 29 percent have a spouse who is either an American citizen or a legal permanent resident of the U.S. Therefore, mass deportation of illegal immigrants would mean either the break-up of families (and a likely increase in welfare costs) or the de facto deportation of children and spouses who are American citizens.
During the 2012 campaign, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney advocated “self-deportation” as an alternative to “forced deportation.”
In essence, Romney argued that illegal immigrants would leave the country voluntarily if they, and their families, were denied job, educational and housing opportunities and were threatened with stops by the local police. However, the practical effect of self-deportation would be the same as forced deportation: Either families would be broken up or children and spouses who are American citizens would be forced to leave the country.
The Center for American Progress estimates that illegal immigrants make up about 5 percent of the U.S. workforce. Some analysts argue that these illegal immigrants are taking jobs from unemployed Americans. In contrast, many employers (especially in agriculture) contend that illegal immigrants are filling jobs unemployed Americans will not take.
Regardless of which argument is correct, the fact is that mass deportation is unlikely to happen. In contrast, grant-ing some form of legal status to immigrant workers who are here illegally is an alternative that could benefit workers who are American citizens.
Because of their fear of deportation, illegal immigrants are reluctant to seek government help if an unscrupulous employer pays them less than the minimum wage, ignores the overtime laws, or subjects them to unsafe working conditions.
Such employers are presumably in the minority, but they do have a competitive advantage. Legalization could undercut that advantage by making it harder for unscrup-ulous employers to exploit immigrant workers. As a result, it could become easier for law-abiding employers to increase wages, provide benefits and improve working conditions for their own workers.
Some opponents of immigration reform argue that granting any form of legal status to those who are in this country illegally would constitute amnesty for lawbreakers and would encourage more illegal immigration. However, the Senate version of immigration reform would require undocumented immigrants to pay fines and back taxes as a condition for legalization.
Furthermore, the House of Representatives is likely to insist on amendments to improve security along the Mexican border even more than proposed by the Senate.
In addition, the Pew Research Center has concluded that declining birth rates in Mexico and an improving economy in that country could mean fewer young adults with an incentive to come to the United States in the future.
Wholesale deportation is not an alternative. Therefore, whether one favors or opposes a path to citizenship, some form of legalization makes sense.
William Lloyd of Somerset represented Somerset County in the state House of Representatives (1981-1998) and served as the state’s small business advocate (November 2003-October 2011). He writes a monthly column for The Tribune-Democrat.
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