Immigration Reform Can Break the Political Deadlock

It should come as no surprise that partisan acrimony lingers following the enactment of sweeping health care reforms. For months, members of both sides have accused each other of playing dirty on a number of issues. But surely they must be wondering how they got to the point where the politics of “no” became “Hell no!” How did the well get so poisoned, to the point that enraged constituents have turned political threats into death threats against congressional members?

It does not have to be that way. Congress has a chance to do something positive, not by walking away from future legislative battles, but by taking on a tough issue like immigration that the public wants resolved.

Cynics may snicker at the suggestion that immigration may be the rope with which to climb out of the poisonous well. After all, it has a history of ugly rhetoric by restrictionists who are angry by the demographic changes occurring across the United States and who falsely use the slow-moving economy as an argument against comprehensive immigration reform.

But immigration offers Congress a way to move forward because it’s traditionally been a bipartisan issue. The center of the Senate immigration debates in 2006 and 2007, for example, was a bipartisan bill the majority of senators from both parties supported. And especially in this economy, Congress has an obligation to pass an immigration bill that is tough, fair, and practical and that will help, not hurt, the national economy.

That’s why Senate Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) renewed this weekend their commitment to keep working on immigration and seek strong engagement from President Obama and other senators. While timing for action on a bill is unclear at the moment, there is agreement that something must be done.

Broad immigration reforms will add a cumulative $1.5 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years, according to a study by the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center. In the program’s first three years, tax revenues would increase from $4.5 billion to $5.4 billion and generate enough new consumer spending to support 750,000 to 900,000 jobs in the United States. The real wages of workers—U.S. born and immigrants—will also rise under comprehensive immigration reform.

Comprehensive reform will include enacting a tough new immigration program that will enforce the borders and the interior so that unscrupulous employers do not unfairly depress the wage scale, exploit workers, and cheat on tax payments. It will contain a fair immigration system to meet the nation’s economic needs for low-skilled and high-skilled workers, and also protect families. And it will require the current undocumented immigrants to register, pay fines and back taxes, learn English, and eventually become citizens.

Beyond their economic benefits, these reforms will strengthen our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That is why law enforcement officers, faith leaders, unions, and communities of all colors support immigration reform. Case in point: More than 200,000 people from more than 40 states gathered peacefully on the National Mall on March 21 to show their support and to call on Congress to show courage and lead.

Mass deportation, the alternative to a comprehensive approach, won’t work. Deporting a population totaling almost 11 million, aside from the human cost, would be a gross waste of taxpayers’ dollars and hardly practical, according to a recent CAP study.

The government would have to take $922 from every man, woman, and child in the United States to come up with the $285 billion that would be needed to apprehend, detain, legally process, and transport undocumented immigrants and maintain the current enforcement strategy at the border and in the interior. That kind of money could be put to much better use, and the economy would mightily suffer if undocumented immigrants were forced out. Our GDP would lose a cumulative $2.6 trillion over 10 years.

And here’s another thing for congressional members to consider: The political math as well as the economic math adds up in favor of immigration reform. A record 10 million Latino voters in 2008 were critical to President Barack Obama’s victories in key states such as Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and Indiana. He had to work hard to win their support during the Democratic presidential primaries. In the two previous elections, President George W. Bush won because of the large support he received from Hispanic voters. While Latinos are just as concerned as other voters about the economy, a candidate’s stance on immigration helps them separate the “good” guys from the “bad” guys in an election.

In other words, a lawmaker who votes for this bill can win the support of the fastest-growing part of the electorate that has wide independent streaks.

There is still truth in the axiom, “Good policy makes good politics.” Immigration offers a chance to help workers in this struggling economy and to stop playing politics with a badly broken system.

Angela Kelley is Senior Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy and Gebe Martinez is a Senior Writer and Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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