In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for immigration reform in the U.S. He stated: "Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship, a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally. And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy. . . . America will be better for it.
Although it's difficult to know exactly how many illegal immigrants currently reside and work in the U.S., the figure is estimated to be around 11 million (Department of Homeland Security). Needless to say, naturalizing 11 million people would have huge repercussions on America's workforce and economy.
Illegal immigrants work in various industries in the U.S., and many are low-skill and low-wage workers in manual labor industries, such as agriculture and construction. As many farmers rely on immigrants because they are unable to recruit Americans to do the work, the reform would benefit these employers who could now hire immigrants legally. However, another subset of immigrants sometimes forgotten is those who work in very high-skilled industries, like science and technology. If passed, this proposed legislation could help prevent "brain drain," or the loss of trained and educated professionals (who have studied at American universities) to their native countries (Time, 10/11/12).
Although economists disagree over the implications of immigration reform on the economy, many argue the consequences would be overwhelmingly positive. A research summary by Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of The Hamilton Project found immigrants are 30% more likely than native-born Americans to start new businesses. Some economists believe that giving citizenship to illegal immigrants will help our overall standard of living improve by making the cost of food, homes, and child care lower (The New York Times, 2/1/13). Vivek Wadwha, a Stanford University fellow, contends reform would increase remittances to families back home, which could eliminate the need for foreign aid and help reduce our federal spending (Fox Business, 6/28/11).
The big question on many Americans' minds regarding immigration reform is whether native-born Americans will lose out on low-wage jobs. Although there is no clear answer from researchers, some suggest that newly legal immigrants would help push natives upward into jobs that require more communication skills (Economic Policy Institute). This would be positive for both employers and job seekers: employers could continue to hire low-wage workers, while native-born Americans would benefit from their native language proficiency.
Immigration reform now rests in the hands of Congress. If Congress and President Obama are unable to work together, as is the case in the recent past, illegal immigrants could remain in the gray area of working and living in the United States without paying taxes. If President Obama and influential Senators can come to a compromise, millions of immigrants will have the chance to become legal workers and citizens.
Readers, have you considered what positions in your company could be better filled with immigrants vs. native-born Americans?