Opinion: A Needed Return to Immigration Reform





Michael J. Wildes

Finally, in the midst of so many other ambitious agenda items, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last week reasserted the administration's commitment to immigration reform, tentatively scheduled for early 2010. It's about time.

The United States is, unbelievably enough, processing millions of immigration cases using a dinosaur system last updated when "E.T." topped box office charts and "Cheers" was America's favorite TV show.

So what has taken immigration reform so long?

The last attempt at reform, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act introduced in 2007, was attacked by the left and the right, and ultimately killed in the Senate despite numerous amendments made in an attempt to save it.

The task won't be any easier next year, and it will mean overcoming a lot of misconceptions.

For example, the tough economy has made the job market extraordinarily competitive and spread the mistaken belief that immigrants steal American jobs. But a study published just this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research found "no evidence that immigrants crowded out employment and hours worked by natives." The authors note that "At the same time, we found robust evidence that [immigrants] increased total factor productivity."

A traditional barrier to immigration reform has been the labor unions , whose primary interests historically have been to protect the American worker. Nevertheless, as Napolitano said, labor leaders have made it clear that unions cannot compete when a large part of the workforce is operating illegally and in a shadow economy.

And fixing immigration can help our economy. As Napolitano noted in her speech Nov. 13, requiring undocumented immigrants to register to earn legal status will actually strengthen our economy, as an estimated 12 million of these immigrants become full-paying taxpayers. And, once registered, they may be called upon to pay back taxes and penalties.

Likewise, American universities attract and educate the finest young talent across the world, only to send them back home when they would rather stay in the U.S. to establish businesses and other ventures. Why not reap the benefits of the education we provide? Leaders in agriculture, service industries and other fields almost universally report that business growth is being hindered by outdated visa quotas.

Despite the discourse of talking heads that focus on immigrants as a drain on society, American immigration in the 21st century is a story of opportunities wasted and development squandered.

Perhaps most important when it comes to any discussion of immigration reform is the moral imperative to ensure the rights of undocumented workers as human beings, many of whom have worked hard and lived as our friends and neighbors for years. Ours is a nation of immigrants, and many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents knew the challenges of integrating into a society hostile to newcomers. Immigration reform will provide advocacy and help for a group of people whose lack of rights has made them easy targets for fraud and exploitation.

It is no secret that our immigration system is broken; both sides of this debate agree on that. For reasons of national security, domestic growth and international expansion, and to uphold the principles upon which this country was built, it is high time that we provide a viable channel of legal immigration worthy of the 21st century.

Michael J. Wildes is an immigration attorney and mayor of Englewood, N.J.



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