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January 24, 2013

Immigrant wrong

Fixing our broken immigration system must be a high priority for lawmakers in Obama’s second term.

Barack Obama made many promises in 2008. He promised to reform healthcare; he did. He promised to end the war in Iraq; he did. He promised to raise fuel economy standards, to invest in renewable energy, to end the use of torture on terror suspects, to tighten financial regulations, and to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—and, sure enough, he did. In his inaugural address this past Monday, the President incorporated a thoughtful (albeit long and vague) discussion of his goals and priorities for the second term, foreshadowing his intentions to confront issues like climate change, job creation, and our labyrinthine tax code.

But what I and many others most want from the President’s second term is true progress on an issue he’s been promising to tackle since he first entered the presidential race: fair and comprehensive immigration reform.

By this, I mean reform that accounts for all of the major issues and hiccups in the system, including its tendency to kick out the highly skilled (but perhaps temporarily unemployed) and to split up families, all while conveniently overlooking immigrants’ invaluable contributions to our country’s education, economy, and culture.

Though mentioned in the President’s quotable “our journey is not complete” epistrophe, the time has come for his administration to put forth a concrete policy proposal that will actually get things done. Immigration directly affects all 40 million members of the United States’ foreign-born population—a fourth of whom are eligible to vote (and a fifth of whom do) and all of whom are our very own neighbors, classmates, colleagues, friends.

Unlike most issues of its scope and magnitude—gun control, climate change, health care, and the like—immigration is unlikely to ever see a crisis of disastrous proportions. It is unlikely to experience the kind of large-scale catastrophe that seems to have become a very unfortunate political necessity for an issue to finally gain the attention of our increasingly incompetent congressional leaders. In many ways, though, it’s already in crisis. Like our inefficient health care system, our equally inefficient immigration bureaucracy prompts small-scale tragedies on a daily basis.

Maybe Mom’s work visa expired. As much as employers have balked at providing their employees with costly health insurance, they are even more reluctant to embark upon the hell of fees and paperwork that is a temporary work visa application. If that weren’t enough, the applicant faces a national quota of just 65,000 per year—20,000 of those being advanced degree holders only. If Mom loses her job for any reason (as many did during the recent recession), her work visa and status are immediately revoked.

Maybe Dad trespassed on someone’s property, or shoplifted, or was publicly intoxicated. In short, he committed a misdemeanor—enough of a crime to place him among the 44 percent of deported criminals in 2011 who had only committed such relatively minor infractions.

Maybe two undocumented immigrants have an honors student daughter. She has everything she needs to get into a great college: outstanding grades, high test scores, hundreds of volunteer hours. Everything, that is, except for the social security number that she needs to submit an application.

Though Congress has been considering legislation to fix some of these problems since 2001, the sole accomplishment of its twelve years of debate has been a $3 billion spending binge on a fancy, albeit completely futile, fence. For all the GOP’s talk about family values—in its 2012 platform, the party “insist[ed] that public policy…be formulated with attention to the needs and strengths of the family”—you’d think Republicans would be falling over themselves to pass comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible. Not quite.

Despite pervasive opinion to the contrary, immigrants—who now comprise an increasingly educated 15.5 percent of the United States labor force—pay our government a net average of $80,000 more in taxes than they take in through government services. For those with college degrees (about 30 percent), that figure goes up to $198,000. Even 50 to 75 percent of the United States’ 11 million undocumented immigrants pay federal, state, and income taxes.

It’s important to remember that the United States has a long and proud history of success rooted in diversity through immigration. For all the ways in which immigration policy remains a problem, immigration itself can act as a solution, bringing us the likes of Einstein, Pulitzer, Bell, Kissinger, Berlin, de la Renta, and some one-fourth of UChicago’s undergraduate population. Moreover, by choosing to ignore the issue of immigration, we continue to fuel a dangerous, misleading, and completely false set of xenophobic stereotypes about a group that includes the vast majority of our own ancestors.

In limiting the number of admitted foreign workers to an arbitrarily fixed quota, deporting minimal offenders, and splitting up families, we are in fact minimizing our own built-in advantage, thereby encouraging illegal immigration, the underpaid employment of illegal aliens, reduced tax revenues, and scores of other counterproductive practices.

Immigrants pull their weight. It’s time that the United States starts pulling its weight, too.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a second-year in the College majoring in economics. 

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