The United States is a country in the midst of a seismic demographic shift. According to some estimates, those with Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders heritages will together outnumber whites by 2040. The Census Bureau recently announced that for the first time in the country’s history white births no longer constitute a majority.
Given the historically contested intersection of race and class in the U.S., immigrants without papers bring highly charged debates over immigration restriction. Undocumented immigrants in the United States number around 12 million people. The vast majority of them have been living in the U.S. for seven years or longer. Though roughly 60% of these folks are from Mexico, the rest come from Asia, the Pacific Islands, South America, Europe, and other places.
Undocumented immigrants are in many ways already citizens. They hold jobs, pay taxes, and consume goods and services. They live in our communities as family members, friends, and neighbors as well as co-workers, schoolmates, and fellow worshippers. As President Obama stated, “They are Americans . . . in every single way but one: on paper.”
In 2010, undocumented immigrants paid over $11 billion in local and state sales and property taxes as well as paying into Social Security and Medicare. They hold agriculture, meat-processing, construction, landscaping, hospitality, manufacturing, or wholesale and retail trade jobs. Their consumer spending helps produce jobs. Their compensation, however, usually falls under that of other workers, and they are more likely to be victims of wage and hour theft.
In 2010, a bill called the DREAM Act, short for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, would grant permanent resident status for young people who came to the United States undocumented but graduated from college or served in the military. The DREAM Act received majorities in the House and Senate, but a minority in the Senate that included 36 Republicans and 5 Democrats blocked it.
In fiscal 2011, the Obama administration deported a record of nearly 400,000 people. At the same time immigrants’ rights activists continued to push for the DREAM Act. In the face of congressional inaction, they won a major victory on June 15 of this year when President Obama announced his administration will halt deportations of undocumented youth. Nearly two-thirds of likely voters indicated they approved his executive decision.
Under the new policy, DREAM-eligible individuals, called DREAMers, will be eligible to receive “removal relief” for two years (subject to renewal) and work authorization if they meet the following criteria: arrived in the U.S. before age l6: are younger than 30; have been in the U.S. for at least five continuous years; graduated from a US high school or earned a GED or served in the US armed forces; and have not been convicted of a crime or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
This plan will impact an estimated 800,000 individuals who came to this country as children, in some cases infants. Many came through no fault of their own and without a real understanding of their undocumented status. For years, DREAMers lived in constant fear of deportation.
The President’s executive directive, based on prosecutorial discretion, is a temporary measure. It grants no legal status or pathway to citizenship. Only Congress can confer these rights. Yet it allows DREAMers to continue living and working as Americans in the only country they call home.
Although a step in the right direction, Obama’s executive authority is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform. We need an immigration system that addresses fairness and adequacy issues by cutting the visa backlog, increasing the number of green cards, and overhauling the naturalization process.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.