NEW YORK (JTA) – The U.S. government raid on the kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, galvanized the Jewish community and Jewish immigration activists. For most of us activists, the May 12 raid – which netted 389 undocumented workers – re-confirmed that compassionate, just immigration reform is long overdue.
For a tiny minority, however, apparently it presented renewed opportunities to reintroduce a host of red herrings that prey on Americans’ fears of economic ruination in the wake of allegedly unbridled immigration.
The current role of immigrants in our economy, as it was when many of our grandparents and great-grandparents escaped European pogroms, is positive. This is as true in the entrepreneurial world, where recent immigrants to the United States have founded Google, eBay and Intel, as it is within the less-skilled labor force.
The United States continues to see real economic benefits from immigration. A recent study by the University of California demonstrated that overall annual growth in Gross Domestic Product is approximately 0.1 percentage point higher as a result of immigration. This may not seem like much, but it represents billions of dollars in economic output and when compounded across a generation, a significant improvement in the standard of living for our children and grandchildren.
Nor is the oft-repeated accusation true that immigrants erode the wages of native-born citizens and even rob them of their ability to make a living. The same University of California study reveals that between 1990 and 2004, native-born wages increased an average of 1.8 percent as a consequence of immigration.
The assumption that foreign- and native-born workers with the same level of education and experience are interchangeable in the U.S. market is another red herring, as differences in cultural backgrounds and language skills prevent most immigrants from competing with native-born workers for jobs.
As our country continues to grow and age, we need more people for our economy to run smoothly. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has stated that we need to raise immigration levels to 3.5 million people annually to overcome the effects of baby boomers aging out of the workforce. In fact, many employers need more immigrant laborers than the 5,000 currently provided by government quotas for unskilled workers but have no legal avenues to recruit them.
Yet responsible immigration advocates do not support unregulated, undocumented immigration. When we argue for a generous immigration policy, “generous” does not equal “open.” The exact numbers and criteria should be developed through a rational debate in American society and subsequent action in Congress.
Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans wants comprehensive immigration reform that includes a realistic path to citizenship for those already here, as well as smart and effective security measures to keep out those who want to do us harm.
We do indeed believe that the 12 million people living in the United States with undocumented status should be allowed to legalize. This policy is not equivalent to supporting undocumented immigration. It simply acknowledges that attempting to deport 12 million individuals, many with children and spouses who are U.S. citizens, is impractical, costly and inhumane.
Legalization would be a long process, with appropriate penalties for violating immigration laws. Yet it would be the first step in enabling undocumented immigrant workers to become equal and legal contributors to their communities, giving them a voice to fight exploitation and, as legal residents, call on the government to protect them.
Last year the president and Congress had a chance to replace our broken immigration system with a new one honoring core American principles and faith-based values while serving essential U.S. interests. They failed to live up to their responsibilities. By now those millions of undocumented workers who came to the United States to work and support their families, not to harm this country – including undocumented workers at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville – could have been on the path to legal status and, potentially, citizenship.
The situation in that Iowa town is a heartbreaking symptom of the collapse of such legislation. Yet this tragedy also provides the opportunity for open discussion that we must not squander. It is critical that we not lose momentum. We must push our lawmakers to move forward early in the next administration to prevent future abuses and finally solve the myriad challenges caused by the current immigration policies.
As consumers of the news, it is important that we not “bite” when baited by red herrings. We must recognize that it is in our best interest as Jews to heed our moral obligations and our biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger.” Likewise, as Americans, it is in our country’s best interest to work together toward constructive, compassionate and reasoned change in our nation’s immigration laws.
(Gideon Aronoff is the president and CEO of HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community, which has been a strong advocate for fair and compassionate immigration legislation.)