Immigration is sure to be a hot topic when Members of Congress meet their constituents face-to-face during the upcoming summer recess. The full Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a controversial “border surge” as well as a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States; the House Committee on Homeland Security has passed an enforcement-only border bill that doesn’t even acknowledge the other components of immigration reform; and there continues to be much heated public debate about what the House will do next and whether the reform effort will survive the vagaries of partisan politics. As politicians and voters attempt to wade through all of the thorny issues that are raised by the topic of immigration reform, and as journalists attempt to report on these many complex issues, there is something which should be kept front and center: facts.
Too often, political debate is dominated by slogans and sound bites, both of which are far too simplistic to capture the realities of immigration and attempts to reform the immigration system. More often than not, those who oppose immigration in general and immigration reform in particular rely upon emotionally laden catch phrases like “seal the border” and “what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?”—phrases which are highly charged yet devoid of factual content. In an attempt to inject some facts into the often fact-free immigration debate, the IPC has prepared a question-and-answer guide that moves beyond rhetoric and relies instead on substance.
- Do immigrants contribute to the economy? Immigrants make enormous economic contributions as workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Immigrants pay taxes, create new jobs by opening businesses, and make scientific discoveries that transform entire industries. For instance, as of 2010, nearly one-fifth (18%) of all Fortune 500 companies had at least one founder who was an immigrant. Collectively, these companies generated $1.7 trillion in annual revenue and employed 3.6 million workers worldwide. These companies include AT&T, Verizon, Kraft, Comcast, Intel, Google, Sun Microsystems, United States Steel, Qualcomm, eBay, Nordstrom, and Yahoo! Moreover, in 2007 (the last year for which data is available), roughly 18% of all small-business owners in the United States were immigrants. All told, immigrant-owned small businesses employed 4.7 million people and had $776 billion in receipts. Immigrants also fuel innovation. Among people with advanced degrees, immigrants are three times more likely to file patents than native-born U.S. citizens.
- Why should we allow unauthorized immigrants to become U.S. citizens? Wouldn’t legal status be enough? The integration of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants now living in the United States into full citizenship is not only good for those individuals, but the country as a whole. Citizenship, and the quest for citizenship, facilitates integration in myriad ways that legal status alone does not. From learning English and U.S. civics to earning higher incomes, serving on a jury, and voting in elections, citizens and would-be citizens benefit from a deeper form of incorporation into U.S. society than do legal immigrants who have no hope of ever applying for naturalization.
- Why don’t unauthorized immigrants just get in line? The current legal immigration system simply cannot handle the demands placed upon it. Roughly 1 million immigrants enter the country each year as lawful permanent residents, most of them based on family or employment relationships, but 4.6 million more have applications pending. Because the number of new immigrants admitted each year is based on numbers set by Congress in 1990, those admissions fail to reflect the legitimate demands for family unification and changes in workforce needs that have occurred over the last two decades. For some countries, the wait time for a visa is almost 20 years. For many people, there simply were not enough visas—either permanent or temporary—which led them to come to the U.S. without authorization when the economy was booming and jobs were waiting. Without a well-regulated and fair system for determining levels of immigration, people who have no chance at standing in line may feel that coming without permission is their only option—and many are willing to take it, no matter the dangers.
During the town-hall meetings and the various meet-and-greets that bring Members of Congress and their constituents together in August, facts should be the focus of the discussion about immigration—not the tired slogans that for so long have dominated the debate.