Immigration: A story of providence and one united people?

Photo by James Donavon on Flickr/Creative Commons

By Terri Ann Campbell, Forum Contributor

The history of the United States is one of many stories—some great, others not so great. All these stories are interwoven to build this great nation. This piece highlights some of the economic contributions immigrants have made to this country. After all, Albert Einstein himself was an immigrant who sought refuge in America from Nazi Germany. But who exactly is an immigrant? The International Office of Migration (IOM) defines an immigrant as someone who leaves their country and enters another with the intent to settle there. In fact, the United Nations (UN) reports that over 232 million persons reside in a country that is not their country of origin.

As problematic as the concepts of lawful and unlawful immigration are, they are enshrined in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), first enacted by Congress in 1952. According to the authors of Immigration and Citizenship: Process & Policy, with the glorious side of immigration comes its less glorious side of exclusions, deportations, and essentially violations of “fundamental notions of fairness and decency . . . Non-citizens continue to be the scapegoats of some of the problems of American Society.” While it is true that immigrants have always come in a plethora of skin shades and hair textures, the evidence is undisputed that European immigrants have always been favored over non-European immigrants.

For example, the Naturalization Act of 1790 excluded everyone who was not “a free white person of good moral character with 2 years of U.S. residency.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 excluded “undesirables” like criminals, prostitutes and–you guessed it—Chinese contract laborers. The Immigration Act of 1907 excluded “imbeciles,” “feeble-minded persons,” and “individuals inflicted by a physical or mental disability.” And more recently, immigration laws continue to evolve and exclude people perceived as “terrorists” or people coming from “shit-hole countries.” The story of immigration is so interwoven into societal values and political discourse that we tend to take the side with which we are most familiar and passionate about.

Nevertheless, immigrants continue to play a significant role in the U.S. economy, and the statistics tell a revealing story. According to the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, “immigrants contribute to the economy in many ways. They work at high rates and make up more than a third of the workforce in some industries.” Because of their geographic mobility, immigrants help “local economies respond to worker shortages, smoothing out bumps that could otherwise weaken the economy.” Furthermore, “children born to immigrant families are an upwardly mobile group, promising future benefits not only to their families, but to the U.S. economy overall.”

The Center also reports that, although immigrants work many low-paying jobs that cause them to need help from programs like SNAP & Medicaid, this does not mean that immigrants have lower rates of employment. In fact, immigrants have higher rates of employment over time—65.7% over 62.3% of native-born American nationals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 63.4% of all foreign-born adults are employed compared to only 59.8 % of native-born American adults. One of the biggest economic benefits that immigrants provide the country is that immigrants support the aging U.S. population plagued by an ever-plummeting birth rate.

Although many argue that undocumented immigrants are the problem, statistics from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reveal that unclaimed taxes from undocumented immigrants significantly fund the nation’s Social Security budget. According to the American Immigration Council, undocumented immigrants are paying billions of unclaimed dollars in taxes each year. Despite their undocumented status, these immigrants—and their family members—are adding value to the U.S. economy, not only as taxpayers, but as workers, consumers, and entrepreneurs. IRS reports reveal something like $11.6 billion in added value from immigrants. In 2013 alone, the share of total taxes undocumented immigrants paid was 8% “compared to 5.4 of the top 1 percent of all taxpayers.”

Adult immigrants bring with them skills in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and other high demand areas that advance scientific research and technological progress. Adult immigrants also attend law school to become lawyers who advocate on behalf of other immigrants to create a more streamlined system of immigration that is less discriminatory and more inclusive.

Hence it is up to us as lawyers to fulfill John Jay’s claim and help America become one united people connected by Providence.

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