Is Immigration Overhaul Vital To U.S. Recovery?

Advocates for legalizing the country's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants have been watching in frustration as the issue has slid down the Obama administration's overloaded agenda.

President Obama recently repeated his campaign pledge to take up the issue in his first year, but White House spokesmen pressed for more have been vague on details, except to make clear that addressing the economic crisis is a higher priority. Even some of the staunchest reformers have admitted that a mass legalization, at a time when so many Americans are losing their jobs, could spell political suicide.

Now, immigrant advocates are rolling out a new argument: They argue an immigration overhaul is, in fact, vital to economic recovery. Simon Rosenberg of the Democratic think-tank NDN says legalizing immigrants would go a long way toward ending unfair competition for low-wage American workers.

"The people who are not playing on an even playing field are the undocumented, because they can be paid less than you. They can be given less benefits. They can be forced to work 60, 70 hours by unscrupulous employers," he says.

Legalization Means New Revenue

Rosenberg and others also point to a Congressional Budget Office study that found legalizing the estimated 6 or 7 million unauthorized workers and their families would add tens of billions to the U.S. Treasury. It would come through more taxes paid, plus the fees and fines likely in any legalization package.

David Kallick of the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York says when 5 percent of the workforce lacks legal status, the economy takes another kind of hit.

"It means they can start an entry level job, but they can't really make the step to improve their education, get to the next level," he says. "And so you're essentially holding a whole contingent of people back from contributing even more to the economy than they do."

But Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies doesn't think any tax benefits will outweigh the cost of all the social services that newly legalized workers would be eligible for. The center favors less immigration overall, and Krikorian says legal status isn't the only problem. He says the sheer number of immigrants in some fields can drag down wages for everyone.

Immigration Proxy Wars

Both sides do agree on this: Absent any larger solution, immigration will keep coming up on almost anything lawmakers touch. It's already happened this year on debates over children's health care and the stimulus package, and Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg predicts more battles over the census, Mexican border security and especially health care.

"It's impossible to understand how we have universal health insurance in America without first fixing the broken immigration system," he says. "Because what the health care fight will become is a debate over whether universal health care covers illegal immigrants."

But analyst Mark Krikorian thinks that may be the way the White House prefers to debate immigration.

"The question for the administration," Krikorian says, "is: 'Do you want to try to deal with it in the context of a health care debate, or do you want to take immigration head on, and lose, and then not be able to get anything done for the rest of your administration?'"

Noah Pickus of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University says he never imagined the White House would want to debate immigration now.

"It would be crazy if they just bring this up and try to push it forward in the current economy," Pickus says. "On other hand, the current economy could be an opportunity for saying we need to actually take account of the impact of immigration on our native workers, and the benefits, and design a policy that attends to that."

Yet White House officials asked about immigration have offered few details. They've said the president is "focused on starting the process." And they've spoken of possible working groups that could help shape legislation. But they suggested, with all the other daunting challenges, a sweeping immigration overhaul is unlikely this year.

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