Market-based appeals for allowing more migrants to legally live and work in the U.S. are critical to achieving economically beneficial immigration reform, a policy analyst said during a Feb. 7 webinar.
And the pitch to get American companies and business owners onboard would be as simple as pointing out that employed migrants are also consumers, said Alex Nowrasteh, director of economic and social policy studies at the Cato Institute.
“Immigrants are people who buy things,” he said during the virtual panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Nowrasteh also argued for a market-based immigration system rather than the government-run model constantly subject to political turmoil. “Let the willing buyers meet the willing sellers,” he said of businesses and prospective migrant workers.
The webinar began with a summary by Kalee Thompson and Tara Watson of their new book, The Border Within: The Economics of Immigration in an Age of Fear, which combines the latest social science research and migration trends with personal stories about undocumented individuals and families whose lives — and those of their friends and employers — have been adversely impacted by the U.S. immigration enforcement system.
The authors’ presentation was followed by a panel discussion that connected the themes of the book with the detrimental impact of anti-immigration rhetoric and politics on labor markets, the economy and American communities.
While much of the attention and debate around immigration focuses on the drama at the U.S.-Mexican border, the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States face a federal enforcement effort that often tears apart families and communities through detention and deportation, Watson said.
And the system has been capricious. Often it can be a random traffic stop, racial profiling encounter or even how an individual police officer feels on a given day, that can make the difference between remaining in the U.S. and arrest or possible expulsion, she said.
The resulting community-wide fear in turn creates a chilling effect on migrants’ willingness to utilize federal safety net programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps, that their U.S.-born children are eligible to receive, Watson added. That behavior spikes not only during local immigration enforcement raids, but also every time a new administration moves into the White House, bringing with it uncertainty about postures toward undocumented migrants.
Stricter border enforcement also has contributed to the rise in the population of undocumented immigrants and their length of stay in the U.S., she said, explaining that most of them are afraid to leave the country knowing it may be impossible to return.
As a result, two-thirds of undocumented migrants in the U.S. have been in the country 10 or more years, whereas in previous years a decade usually was the longest stay.
She added that most undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. did not enter by illegally crossing the border. “Most arrive legally on a visa then overstay the visa,” often as a result of “more border control over the past two decades.”
Interior enforcement, especially as aggressively practiced during the Trump era, is an ineffective way to accomplish the reduction or elimination of immigration that its proponents seek, said panelist Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
One challenge is the expansiveness of the United States, which makes it difficult to systematically locate and apprehend undocumented people. And the process usually overlooks the growing number of African and Asian migrants because Latinos are almost exclusively stereotyped as illegals, she said.
Then there is the immorality of detaining, and often deporting, migrants who have lived in the U.S. for decades, tearing apart their families, communities and careers, Cardinal Brown said.
Besides, aggressive interior enforcement doesn’t deter attempted illegal immigration given the rise in desperation driving so many migrants from their home countries, she said.
But logic isn’t inspiring the rise in anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S., said panelist Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, an associate professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at UCLA.
Instead, they are driven by an us-versus-them attitude also known as “a competition theory” of immigration, he explained. This theory holds that immigrants steal jobs from Americans when in fact the evidence is the opposite. “Immigration increases the pie for everybody.”
Research also has shown that, paradoxically, negative attitudes toward immigration are usually highest in congressional districts where there is little or no immigrant presence, while those where immigration is prevalent are “very pro-immigration,” said Hinojosa-Ojeda, co-author of The Trump Paradox: Migration, Trade, and Racial Politics in U.S.-Mexico Integration.
But the competition theory has been winning out, damaging the U.S. economy and immigrants alike, he said. “We are seeing lives that are being muted and their contribution to society is being reduced.”
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