Many cities, towns, suburbs and rural communities across the country have recently experienced a sudden influx of immigrants. Some places saw their local economies flourish during the high-tech and construction booms of the past decade. Others, facing an economic downturn, are concerned about the costs of providing services to newcomers, especially as their schools see a spike in the enrollment of limited English proficient students.
In short, immigration is bringing change to communities of all kinds and sizes, from the Dallas suburbs to Prince William County, Va., on the metropolitan fringe of Washington, D.C., to rural areas across North Carolina. Heartland states saw surprising increases in immigrants since 2000 — Indiana ranked 10th among all states, close behind Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona.
Although most immigrants living in the United States are here legally, about one-third are not. Last year Congress debated immigration reform, but politicians who favored a comprehensive approach and politicians who favored an enforcement-only approach failed to come to terms. Unfortunately, the local problems got lost in the national rhetoric on border enforcement and “amnesty.”
Yet the groundswell of local pressures guarantees that immigration reform will be one of the biggest domestic issues our next president will face. Many states and localities have stepped into the breach by adopting their own enforcement policies aimed at restricting illegal immigrants. This leads to a patchwork of confusing measures, many of which are socially divisive and costly; some are of questionable legality.
Our country’s large immigrant population brings many positives. Immigrants keep our workforce numbers up, which means economic growth and more payroll tax contributions to Social Security and Medicare. Immigration assures the United States a young, productive labor force.
But there are also challenges and responsibilities. One-third of immigrant workers lack a high school education. Immigration, both legal and illegal, puts stress on community infrastructure, from public schools to municipal providers of law enforcement, fire safety and public health.
Although some state treasuries benefit from illegal immigration — Texas, for example, has concluded that illegal immigrants paid $425 million more in state taxes than they consumed in state services — many towns, cities and counties paid more for services to illegal immigrants than they received in taxes. And, so far, the federal government is doing little to help hard-pressed local governments even the score.
The United States has more than 37 million immigrants living here, or 12.5 percent of the population. An estimated 11 million to 12 million are without legal status. The current generation of immigrants and their offspring — many of whom are U.S. citizens — will play a central role in our workforce as our native-born population continues to age. Without an adjustment to legal status, however, many may never make the kind of gains needed to secure a place in the labor market, the educational system and in local communities.
What’s needed is a three-pronged strategy.
First, the next president should lead efforts to enact an Earned Legalization program. The program should require a simple registration process that includes a security check, a substantial fee, and a commitment to work and pay taxes while in a temporary legal status. Registrants then would stand in line behind legal immigrants to await permanent status. Achieving this status would depend on work history, tax payments, English language skills and “good moral character.”
The Earned Legalization program should offer enough promise to illegal immigrants to coax them out of the shadows. But it should be tough enough to weed out those who would do the country harm.
Second, the next president should develop an Impact Aid program to compensate state and local governments for their extra costs. Part of this program would be financed through the registration fees paid by illegal immigrants.
Third, the next president should announce a New Americans Initiative to help all immigrants integrate into American life. This initiative would allow states to strategically design and run their own New Americans programs through public-private partnerships, seeded initially by Washington. They could pursue new practices or enhance existing programs tailored to their own needs including English language instruction, civics education, welcome centers, and state and local referral services.
It’s not just immigrant families who need help. So do the communities where they live and the elected officials who govern them. Candidates for high office should stand up for communities with immigrant newcomers who come to America to work and build families, as did the parents and grandparents of today’s “mainstream.”