Immigration reform benefits country, economy

As President Barack Obama is sworn in for his second term, Jan. 21, we should take this moment to consider how our country must come together and achieve a common vision for America.

Any conversation about achieving this vision should include the passage of common sense immigration reform. Voters were clear about the direction in which they want this country to go; they sided with a platform that calls for good jobs and an economy that works for all, insists everybody pay their fair share, and calls for passing commonsense, accountable immigration reform.

Immigration reform is one leg of the stool for creating more good jobs. It would level the playing field for all workers by ensuring that unscrupulous employers cannot continue to take advantage of undocumented laborers, thereby raising the wage floor for all workers.

An overhaul of our immigration system that begins with legalization for the undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States would provide a powerful boost to our economy. It would mean additional $1.5 trillion in cumulative gross domestic product (GDP) over the next ten years. Moreover, the same plan would generate nearly $5.4 billion in additional net federal tax revenue over the next three years – adding to the $11.2 billion paid in state and local taxes by households headed by unauthorized immigrants in 2010 alone.

All of this, of course, against the backdrop of some $18 billion spent on immigration enforcement, (and that is just 2012) – notably 24% more than spending for the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, US Marshal Service and the ATF, combined. 

However, for the American people, immigration reform isn’t just about revenue. It’s about our shared value that if you work hard, and you play by the rules, then you deserve opportunity. It’s about fixing our broken system and growing our economy in a way that benefits all of us. And while extreme, right-wing Republicans waste time obsessing over a costly border fence and attempting to politically capitalize on xenophobia, the majority of Americans have decided that a common sense plan is the right approach. Overwhelmingly, Americans believe that reform must include earned legalization with a pathway to citizenship, a plan to address the future flow of immigrants and safe borders.

So, while pundits will continue to argue that immigration reform is about political expediency and the Latino vote, we have a responsibility to debunk that myth. Yes, Latinos overwhelming support comprehensive reform, and yes, Latinos overwhelmingly voted for President Obama in a number of key battleground states. But leaving it there ignores the fact that common sense, accountable immigration reform is popular with voters across party identification, geography and racial and ethnic groups.

As we celebrate President Obama’s inauguration, media, pundits, politicians and other leaders will offer suggested roadmaps for a second term. Whether the roadmaps focuses on jobs, economic growth, tax fairness, income inequality or otherwise, ignoring the critical role that common sense immigration reform can play is doing disservice to the future of this country.

For the 2.1 million members of SEIU, passing accountable, commonsense immigration reform is not just about what is best for our economy and our country, but also about ensuring that every worker is respected, every worker is paid fair wages, and that every worker has a voice on the job.

Mary Kay Henry is president of Service Employees International Union.

Photo: Young woman holds a sign for immigration reform at an Immigrant Youth Justice League rally in Chicago, March 10, 2011. (PW/Pepe Lozano)