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Guest Voz: The Real Economics of Immigration Reform

By Cristina Jimenez
LatinaLista — Cristina Jimenez is the immigration policy consultant for the non-partisan, non-profit think tank Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Analyzing the content within the stimulus package passed by Congress, Jimenez noted that Congress missed a major opportunity — connecting progressive immigration reform to economic stimulus.
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Cristina Jimenez, immigration policy consultant
(Source: Drum Major Institute)

In an essay for The American Prospect, Jimenez draws upon direct conversations with Congressional staffers, interviews with undocumented families and the latest research to demonstrate how and why real-world economics must replace the divisive political framing that so often limits the national discussion on immigration.
The following is a shortened adaptation of the original analysis by Jimenez especially for Latina Lista. To read the original in its entirety, go to The American Prospect.

Shortly after the November election, a few congressional offices privately acknowledged that it would be smart for the Obama administration to try to include pro-immigration provisions in the upcoming stimulus package.
Some policy staffers were reading studies and hearing testimonies about how hardworking immigrants drive productivity and job creation across many different sectors of the economy. But as the stimulus bill gets finalized in conference this week and heads to Obama’s desk for a signature, immigration will be debated only in the narrow terms of E-verify, the Bush-mandated system that all businesses benefiting from the stimulus may be required to use to verify the immigration status of their employees.
What more can we expect? After all, immigration reform is a tougher sell in a recession. That’s the blunt observation Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib recently offered: “Pushing any kind of immigration reform, particularly one that includes a path toward legalization, is a lot harder in an environment in which Americans are losing jobs.”
Yet the political difficulty predates the Wall Street collapse and job-loss figures. For years, there has been little analysis of how a path toward legalization would increase the positive economic contributions of undocumented immigrants.
Instead, conservative critics have found willing partners in the media and government to turn immigration reform into a zero-sum game, a war of us-versus-them in which every job performed by an “illegal” must have been stolen from a more deserving American.

The politics won’t change until the real economics of immigration reframe the debate.
Here’s a reality check: Consigning undocumented workers to a precarious existence undermines all who aspire to a middle-class standard of living.
Employers regularly rely on undocumented workers to perform low-paying, unregulated jobs and to put downward pressure on all wages in certain industries. Immigrants without legal status accept these jobs because they lack power and workplace rights; non-immigrants must accept the same diminished wages and degraded conditions or risk exclusion from many employment opportunities.
Only when undocumented immigrants have the ability to exercise complete workplace rights will they help exert upward pressure on wages and labor standards that will benefit other workers. To claim that immigrants and non-immigrants simply compete for the same jobs is to misunderstand the power dynamics of a two-tiered labor market that prevents workers from meeting each other on a level playing field.
The mere presence of undocumented immigrants does not harm native-born workers. It’s their exploitation that makes it harder for workers to exercise control over the conditions of employment.
Under current law, undocumented workers are at the mercy of employers to the same extent that unprotected native-born workers were before the union victories of the 1930s. Distance from those historic triumphs makes it easy to forget that when immigrants and non-immigrants are equally empowered, job quality improves and wages rise, because the common interests of immigrants and non-immigrants become much stronger than the artificial conditions that divide them.
Today, as in the past, cooperation and coalition-building would benefit all immigrants and native-born Americans trying to work their way into the middle class.
This point has not been lost on top economists in the Obama administration. In their policy primer on the stimulus package, Jared Bernstein and Christina Romer argue for revitalizing construction and manufacturing not simply because they have been among the hardest hit areas of the economy but because union representation is stronger in those areas, so new jobs created will likely be higher-paying, better quality, and more sustainable over time. As it happens, a large number of documented and undocumented workers perform construction and manufacturing jobs.
Undocumented families have the same goals as the millions of Americans struggling to hold on to jobs right now. And, in another twist of irony, they talk up the same moral virtues that anti-immigrant leaders tout.
They are self-reliant, industrious, and resilient. If they had a fully legal livelihood here, they would open more businesses and contribute in other ways that would help jump-start our ailing economy.

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  • Horace
    February 13, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    “The mere presence of undocumented immigrants does not harm native-born workers.”
    We all know that the cost of labor is directly proportional to supply and demand, so the excess labor that illegal aliens present does indeed reduce the average wage of laborers at the lower end of the scale. Studies have shown this to be true regardless of whether these foreign nationals are legal or not. This woman’s statement is no different than from other ethnocentrist propagandists who try to sell their baloney to congress and the people.

  • Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
    February 15, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Thanks for this post. Important information here.

  • Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
    February 15, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Thanks for this post. Cristina sounds amazing. Important information here. Don’t listen to the crazy hateful people who come here to post venom. Que segiumos pa’lante.

  • Sandra
    February 15, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Why don’t you refute this so-called “venom and hate” then? Rather than just name calling?

  • Idler
    February 15, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Why should “siguiendo pa’lante” be inconsistent with complying with the law?

  • Panchito
    February 21, 2009 at 11:52 am

    You wouldn’t know “supply and demand” if it hit you in the face. Stop playing games you uneducated fool. The minimum wage in Kansas is $2.25 and it is not because of illegal immigrants. You can blame the stupid Republican Party who opposes it any time the Democrats want to raise the minimum wage.

  • Horace
    March 1, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Hey, Panchito, this is a terrific example of supply and demand. We’ve got no demand for illegal alien labor and our supply is going south:
    Posted February 2009
    With the U.S. economy contracting rapidly, Mexican migrants are heading back south. But they’re finding the homecoming isn’t quite what they imagined.
    Reverse Migration Rocks Mexico
    By Malcolm Beith
    What our Congress and president are failing to do is being done by the economy. Apparently there aren’t enough remaining of the jobs that you claim citizens refused to do.
    “They’ll shun straws that aren’t pre-wrapped, and according to some local policemen, they are clueless about the “code” — in other words, when to pay a bribe in order to avoid the laborious process of paying a traffic ticket.
    Maybe they’ll teach their countryman hygiene and to stand up against corruption and maybe grow a pair.

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