A Case for Learning: Immigrants and our Economy

At this point almost any American who has been paying even remote attention to this circus of a presidential election can recite Donald Trump’s stance on immigration: he has impossibly ambitious plans to build a border-wall and have Mexico fund it; he claims most, if not all, Mexican immigrants are rapists and murders; without apparently understanding how deportation works, he plans to deport 11 million people from the US; and he intends to place a ban on Muslim immigration. The problematic aspects of this platform are well documented and have been talked about a million different ways in the media. A sad result of his hateful propaganda is that the well has been poisoned, to say the least, when it comes to having a productive dialogue about immigration in the US. There was a video, watch if you dare, on the NY Times website yesterday that shows, among many, many terrible things, people screaming horrible things about immigrants. It’s hard to watch — especially if you love one, just one, person who is an immigrant to the US.

I live in New Mexico and I am an immigration lawyer. I fight for the rights of immigrants to live and work in peace in my state. I do this because I believe in the human rights of people to migrate. I don’t support open borders but I do believe that sensible regulation will come once we let go of the need to punish people for wanting to live and work in a country like ours. I know what detractors will say: that this is fine as long as they do it legally. I wonder if these detractors truly understand what legal means when it comes to obtaining a visa in the US. Do they know that a flowchart about how to obtain a visa looks something like this:

 

Do they know that I regularly have to tell families in consultation that although there is a visa available to them under US law, the wait list at the moment to get that visa is over twenty years — that they have to wait a generation to get it? Are we really concerned that immigrants bring a criminal element to our county when facts clearly indicate a lower crime rate in immigrant communities than in the general population? I often wonder if those angry folks who are so certain that there is a moral failure involved in irregular and undocumented migration took a seminar on immigration law and understood the current system and the failure that surrounds it — would they have so much conviction in their condemnation? Maybe they themselves are immigrants and are bitter that people are circumventing the process that was so taxing to them. There are real conversations to be had about this topic but I am not sure our country is open to learning around the issue of immigration anymore. We are too emotional about this issue and being pushed to be more emotional by a man who is dangerously unqualified to be telling anyone how to feel about anything. And because of that, because of him, we are missing some stunning and beautiful facts about immigration in America in 2016.

 

You see there is another reason I believe in what I do: I know that immigrants make our country stronger. Yes, I mean culturally. Yes, I mean spiritually. And yes, I am glad for the color and flavor and beauty and rhythm that immigration adds to our streets and schools and churches and homes and businesses. But the stunning thing is just how much stronger immigrants, both documented and undocumented, make our country economically. I had the opportunity yesterday to be part of the release of a report from the New American Economy group called Reason for ReformIn our press call we focused on their report about New Mexico and the contributions of immigrants to our economy. If you care about the economy and if you have an opinion about immigration in your state — pro or con — the report is worth reading. Hear that? It is worth educating yourself on this issue as you craft an opinion and prepare to vote in November. But just in case I will summarize what I took away from my reading of the New Mexico report:

There are nearly 214,000 immigrants living in NM. That’s about 10 percent of the population. About 1/3 of those folks are undocumented. In 2014 that 214,000 earned $4.5 billion income. $394 million of those billions went to state and local taxes and $756 million went to federal taxes. $447 million was paid into Social Security and $112 Million went to Medicare.

Around 12,000 immigrants in NM are self-employed and that generated $190 million in revenue in 2014. Furthermore 24,000 people in the state are working at immigrant owned businesses. Also: Immigrants comprise 42 percent of the dairy industry workforce. This industry brings in $1.8 billion in receipts for NM. This too: NM Immigrants we responsible for creating 9,600 manufacturing jobs in 2010.

Interestingly, according to the report, there were 8.8 healthcare jobs for every one available worker in NM and 10 STEM jobs. It is estimated that there will be a shortage of over 2,000 licensed nursed in NM by 2025. These are jobs that could be filled by immigrants if we supported their education and training in our state!

I could continue but then I would just be repeating the whole report, which is fascinating. What’s exciting about these findings is that they are not making a sociological statement about migration or leaning on racial bias but rather simply analyzing numbers and the numbers show that our economy is stronger and healthier because of immigrants. If we kicked them all out or stemmed the flow could we adjust? Probably. Would we survive? Definitely. But why should we try? Why would we dare? If we clear our heads of all the arguments related to race is the question maybe then, why do we care? We have an amazing resource here in country, in our state, in our towns and in our neighborhoods. This isn’t new news. Immigrants have always historically made our country stronger. It’s an American tradition. It might even be the point of America. And yesterday, reading Reason for Reform, I got a chance to stare at some cold facts supporting that assertion. I am sincerely hoping those facts take a little bit of pressure off of the advocates who are exhausted from trying to convince people in the US that immigrants are worth a damn. If Trump wants to kick folks out of our country who are putting up these economic numbers without a genuine dialogue lets at least be straight with our labels. He’s not a realist, he’s a racist.

People always ask me what they can do after they read these lengthy sermons I write about my job. This one is easy: learn some facts. We all know propaganda is readily available about immigration but so are factsabout the impact of immigration for anyone who cares to look for them. Debating this topic can be fun and challenging — there are serious issues here demanding serious solutions — but not when one side of the argument is held up by a spine of racism. Another thing you can do: vote! And vote with your head here, not just your heart. Vote for a candidate who believes we can humanely regulate immigration for our economic and social benefit. Demand for our lawmakers to talk reasonably about immigration reform and how it can grow our economy and to leave the racist rhetoric out of the discussion. Then vote on that! Be worried if you live in NM, a state where our governor intimidates immigrants every chance she gets. NM is statistically the most difficult place to be a child in the United States. We need jobs here! We need tax dollars for our schools and affordable housing and social security and medicaid. We don’t need our politicians scaring us away from growth because of racism and fear.

I can already anticipate the hateful comments that writing like this begs. I’ve heard it all before and considered most of it, even when the hate is perplexingly personal. But I’ll stick with believing in the possibility of growth and enterprise and progress that immigrants have always carried with them and continue to carry in 2016. I‘ll stick’ with the nuance and critical thinking and complexity that transcends someone yelling “f*ck those beaners” at a rally. I’m betting on the numbers here, the facts that might help the little guys in my family and in my town come up happier and healthier is a state where it is devastatingly hard to grow up. And I am betting on politicians who are willing to take on real conversations and real debates about the issue of immigration and national security without toxic racist propaganda.