May 16, Progressive Party with Sen. Schumer Get tickets

Why Immigration Reform Is Good for All

Seven people from the United We Dream immigration reform group wait to be arrested after obstructing the entrance to the Broward Transitional Center in Deerfield Beach, Florida, on August 20, 2014.

While President Barack Obama’s decision last weekend to postpone his long-expected executive order on immigration until after the midterm elections is a disappointment, the White House will still act to ease the harsh federal enforcement policies that cripple our economy and harm millions of families. Until the White House acts, the door remains open for advocates, including me, to make a targeted argument about the universal value of federal actions to protect immigrant families from the threat of deportation. What’s more, the president’s executive action, when it occurs, will bring fiscal benefits and won’t harm American workers.

Yes, my fellow black Americans, I’m talking specifically to you because you have nothing to fear from immigrant workers. There seems to be a rear-guard movement of lesser-known activists and self-proclaimed leaders who boisterously argue that immigration reform is bad news for the nation’s black communities. They are wrong and not representative of the population they claim to represent. Indeed, few of them have standing or visibility among black Americans. But actual civil rights leaders, according to Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “view immigration reform as a defining civil and human rights issue of our time.”

One of those recognized leaders, the Rev. Al Sharpton expressed disgust at conservative activists who would shout at busloads of children in their protests. “Today, when President Obama wants to tackle the problem, he is getting pushback from every corner,” Sharpton wrote recently for the Huffington Post. “Instead of working with him to establish a humane resolution to an urgent humanitarian crisis, politicians, pundits and those with their own agendas are using defenseless children as pawns in a dirty game of politics.”

Or, consider an even more progressive voice, civil rights activist Angela Davis, who has argued that immigration reform activists are natural allies to her life’s work and that black Americans have an obligation to support their efforts to make America fairer. Indeed, progressives see future allies in their struggle for economic justice by ushering undocumented immigrants from their current shadowy existence.

Still, confusion swirls about black views toward immigration. Those who complain the loudest often pass along misinformation and erroneous talking points meant to mislead those who haven’t tracked the facts about immigration more closely. Personally, I suspect much of the distortion about the impact of making our nation’s broken immigration policy fairer for all is rooted in a divide-and-conquer strategy by political extremists on the conservative right, who are the obstructionists to immigration reform, among many other issues.

As previewed by The New York Times, the White House is likely to grant deferred action—a process by which low-priority immigrants could apply for a deferral of deportation and a work permit, if they pass background checks. This will allow them to work legally and to pay taxes.

This isn’t bad news for black Americans. The facts supporting White House action lean heavily toward an argument for African American support for immigration reform. As Jeneba Ghatt wrote for UrbanFaith.com, “Immigration reform affects the black community and its time for us to get active in the discussion as well as stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are immigrants.”

But what do you say to those who argue to the contrary? I’m glad you asked because here’s a top-five list of facts that refute common misperceptions surrounding immigration reform:

  • Deferred action won’t mean more people looking for work. Creating an avenue for undocumented immigrants to register with the government and apply for a work permit will not increase the supply of labor in the United States. Those immigrants who would be affected are already in the country, working and contributing to our economy.
  • Immigration reform helps the native-born move up the economic ladder. Researchers have found that African Americans and women are the most likely to move to higher-skilled jobs as a result of immigrants entering the labor force. Allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary work permits will result in them finding jobs that best match their skills in intensive manual labor jobs that often are rejected by native-born workers. In fact, as the studies show, when those low-wage, low-skill jobs go to immigrants, native-born workers tend to move up the occupational ladder, filling jobs with higher language skills and greater education requirements.
  • Immigrants complement American workers. Extending deferred action to undocumented immigrants will allow them to work legally and apply for jobs across the labor market, but this doesn’t mean undocumented immigrants will be competing for the same jobs as native-born workers. Researchers have found that immigrants and native-born workers don’t compete against each other because they have different skill sets and ultimately hold different jobs.
  • Immigration helps, not harms, the wages of American workers. Researchers have found time and again that immigration has a positive effect on American workers’ wages, even African Americans and the lesser-skilled. A deferred action program would also boost the earnings of American workers: As undocumented immigrants begin working legally and earning more, they will spend more money in their communities on consumer goods such as cars, homes, and clothing. All of this extra spending adds up, stimulating the economy and leading to job creation as well as higher wages for all workers.
  • Deferred action will increase payroll tax revenues, helping the national economy. Extending a deferred action program to undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for at least five years would increase payroll tax revenues by nearly $45 billion over five years. These gains would occur because allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary work permits will get more workers and their employers on the books paying taxes.

To be sure, once the realities of Election Day politics pass, President Obama will issue his delayed executive order on immigration. But that’s not the end of the effort. Far from it. But hopefully it will represent the turning of a page toward congressional action to enact comprehensive immigration reform. That’s the ultimate goal, and when that happens—contrary to the arguments of naysayers and fear mongers—it will be obvious to anyone paying attention that the cost of improving the lives of millions of immigrant families will not come at the expense of blacks or any other group of Americans.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.