Indiana has big stake in outcome

By Allert Brown-Gort

One of the most contentious issues facing Congress is immigration. And Indiana has a large stake in the outcome. No doubt many Hoosiers agree with some politicians that it should be an easy call. After all, if immigrants are here without proper documentation, they should return home. But the reality is more complex, and while enforcement-only laws may make good politics, they make bad economics and even worse policy.

Indiana is a good example of the economic and demographic value these immigrants provide that should give policy makers pause before simply instituting programs of mass deportations.

Businesses widely recognize that immigrants take jobs that most American would not. It is because of them that the U.S. economy is not facing the severe depopulation pressures afflicting Europe and Japan. And, as The New York Times reported last year, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants pay taxes, including Social Security and Medicare, and receive very few services in return.

Indiana is losing population and would have lost much more but for the number of immigrants coming here. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state lost nearly 22,000 residents between 2000 and 2004. During that same period, however, the foreign-born population increased by about 51,000. If it were not for immigration, Indiana’s population losses would have more than tripled.

But didn’t many immigrants break the law? Technically, yes, but what we currently have is a law that is seriously out of touch with the reality of the country. After all, they would not come if they did not have prospects for a job — and an estimated 90 percent of undocumented immigrants already have a good idea of where they will work after they cross the border. In the meantime, only three companies throughout the country were issued penalty notices in 2004 for hiring undocumented workers.

And just how “illegal” are they? Under current law, crossing the border without authorization is a civil, not a criminal, violation — although current legislation might change this.

People often say they are for immigration — but only for people who follow the rules. After all, their forebears immigrated, but they did so legally. No one’s migration journey is ever easy, but the reality is that until 1917 essentially anyone who passed a medical exam and could pay the tax was allowed to enter, and between 1924 and 1965 anyone who passed a literacy test and a medical exam and came from approved countries (that is, Europe) was also admitted relatively easily. Nowadays, the country’s immigration laws are designed not to keep out “undesirable races,” but rather low-skilled workers. There are provisions for only 50,000 temporary “seasonal worker” visas annually, but the reality of some 450,000 people coming to this country without documents every year should give us some idea of the scale of the demand for this type of worker.

In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 4437, a draconian bill that concentrates exclusively on punitive enforcement measures.

If we are truly to reform immigration, we must reform the law to conform to reality, not try to ignore the facts of our need for these immigrants by restricting the number of appropriate visas and by making life miserable for those who are already here without documents. After all, that approach is what got us in this mess in the first place.

We need to find a mechanism that allows immigrants to earn legalization while recognizing the contribution they make to this country — and the fact that the great majority of their children are Americans. It will be good for the country, and for Indiana.

Brown-Gort is associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies and a fellow at the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame.