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Immigration Reform Part Of Battle For Future Of U.S.

Jacqueline Jackson |
April 28, 2013 | 12:29 p.m. PDT


The battle over immigration is taking place in the streets. (Jacqueline Jackson)
The battle over immigration is taking place in the streets. (Jacqueline Jackson)
The Senate's new immigration reform bill has millions celebrating a potential path to citizenship for the current 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Of the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants that currently reside in the United States, a majority arrived before 2000. Only 1.6 million have arrived since 2005. Not only will any immigration reforms affect their lives, but they will also affect the lives of current U.S. citizens concerned about how immigration reform will impact everything from jobs to neighborhood demographics. Over the past few weeks, thousands of immigrant groups and supporters of immigration reform filled the streets of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and numerous other cities throughout the U.S. to demonstrate the importance of the immigration issue, and to demonstrate that organizations, families and friends support the movement for reform.

After weeks of demonstrations, the new immigration reform bill was revealed to mixed reviews. The bill, created by a bipartisan group of senators termed the "Gang of Eight," is called the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013." It creates a 13-year path to citizenship: new immigrants "would have to pay a $2,000 fine, pass a background check, have a job and wait 10 years before applying for a green card," and three years later they would be able to apply for U.S. citizenship; immigrants who arrived before Dec. 31, 2011, however, could apply for "provisional" legal status within six months of the bill being signed by the president. The bill also includes a plan to improve border security, as well as an immigration status check to ensure that employers are not hiring undocumented immigrants.

(Jacqueline Jackson)
(Jacqueline Jackson)
For some, these changes are not good enough. Some immigrants and their supporters believe the 13-year path to citizenship is too long. Some U.S. citizens believe the bill would grant undue power to non-U.S. citizens throughout the U.S. Despite the differences of opinion, however, both sides appear to be dedicated to altering the U.S.'s approach to immigration.

Tensions in the U.S. are running high; while traveling through L.A. last week, I saw a sign that asked all immigrants to "Go Back Home." The sign targeted Mexican Americans, comparing them to roaches, asked, "Can we go to Mexico for jobs?" and was topped off with a few expletives. In thinking about the implications of the sign's message, I wondered (a) how the influx of immigrants to the U.S. helps or hurts the U.S. economy, and (b) why immigrants' "homes" automatically mean, to U.S. citizens opposed to immigration reform, the place they emigrated from.

Economic Consequences of Immigration

The economy, even according to conservative sources, can only improve with immigration reform. The executive summary of a report released by conservative economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin states: "A benchmark immigration reform would raise the pace of economic growth by nearly a percentage point over the next term, raise GDP per capita by over $1,500 and reduce the cumulative federal deficit by over $2.5 trillion." But in thinking about the impact of immigration on everyday lives, the average U.S. citizen's mind turns to jobs.

Undocumented immigrants comprised a sizeable 16 percent of America's labor force in 2010. Yet, the impact on employment of the influx of immgrants has not negatively affected the economy. The New York Times explained that competing with immigrants in the workforce has not depreciated the wages of U.S. citizens. And even though U.S. citizens impacted by a struggling economy could look for and compete with immigrants for jobs as maids, janitors, construction workers or technical assistants, many U.S. citizens refuse to accept positions in these areas. U.S. citizens have the opportunity to work these lower-paying jobs, but often they assume that immigrants have already taken them all, when in reality positions are available in all of these areas. Immigrants in the labor force work jobs U.S. citizens are less likely to take in the first place.

The high rate of unemployment in the U.S. cannot be attributed solely to the influx of immigrants. States and cities throughout the U.S. are facing budget cuts, and the sequester may limit programs that support summer education, work experience and federal employment. Not only that, but now, according to the President of American Action Forum, "Americans are competing in a global market, whether the remainder of the labor pool is across the street, across the state, or across an ocean makes no difference for the future of wages. Making sure our workers can compete is an important policy goal; it is a different question than immigration." U.S. citizens are not just competing with immigrants to the U.S. - if that - they are competing with a global labor force.

Overall, it seems that immigration reform - providing a path to citizenship for the 11.1 million immigrants in the U.S. - could improve the U.S. economy and its economic standing in the world economy. Yet, if the fears of U.S. citizens regarding their ability to survive in a struggling economy should immigration reform be enacted are allayed by this suggestion, the discussion of the economic consequences of immigration ignores consideration of the everyday lives of the immigrants themselves. This year, immigrants have received a more welcoming response from some politicians, but some U.S. citizens' prejudice against them remains. Those U.S. citizens may want undocumented immigrants to "Go Back Home," but what if, to them, the U.S. is home?

The Meaning of "Home" to Immigrants

A majority of the immigrants who would be affected by the new immigration reform bill have lived in the U.S. since 2000 or before. Only 1.6 million have lived in the U.S. since 2005. They traveled (and continue to travel) under harsh conditions in order to obtain the opportunity to live what they perceive as a life of freedom. The passion behind immigration reform carries with it a great sense of urgency for the simple reason that it was only through great sacrifice that immigration was possible. Immigrants to the U.S. took risks to arrive here to live the life promised by the U.S.'s reputation as a free country, and most of them have been living here long enough to have made the U.S. their home.

U.S. citizens to threaten, verbally abuse, or just yell on street corners at undocumented immigrants, hoping they will return "home" to the place they came from, and in doing so, those U.S. citizens refuse to recognize the immigrants' connection to the U.S. For Mexican Americans, the Southwest U.S. ties them to their ancestral roots. Mexico signed over what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico to the United States in 1848. Immigrants from Mexico share a bond with U.S. soil that cannot be discounted. Although time has passed since the exchange of land, that does not mean that Mexicans do not have a strong tie to their past. It is the land with which they connect their ancestral roots to their present-day lives.

Although Mexicans have a direct tie to the land to which they immigrate, other immigrants from across the globe are also attracted to the U.S.'s promises of opportunity and freedom. The prospects of making the U.S. their home and keeping it that way brought them here and that is why they stay. With 11.1 million immigrants in the U.S., though, employers, employees and U.S. citizens throughout the U.S. question how incorporating the immigrants more directly into American life will affect their home.

As political debate over immigration reform takes center stage, more information should become available about the specifics of the new bill's provisions. But no matter what the "Gang of Eight" does to sell their bill, no matter what may be discussed or decided by officials in the capitol, it is on the streets of the nation's largest, most diverse cities where the ongoing war will be fought between U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants over control of their futures.


Reach Contributor Jacqueline Jackson here; follow her here.



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