By Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez - 02/04/10 12:08 AM EST
Last week, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address spoke extensively and eloquently about the economy. Regrettably, he missed a key point: We cannot get on the road to financial recovery and growth without enacting comprehensive immigration reform.
Tackling unemployment, committing to support community lending and reining in “too big to fail” banks are all, without question, the right things to do. But it’s not enough. In fact, it’s not even close.
Take a place like 26th Street in my district, a once desolate and deserted stretch of Chicago that was rebuilt by the sweat and toil of the Mexican-American community. Today, it is one of Chicago’s longest uninterrupted commercial strips, paying one of the highest sales tax revenues in the city. It has brought tourism and growth to our neighborhoods — not because immigrants were looking for a free ride — but because they were ready to roll up their sleeves and work for the country they love.
In a rough economy, it’s easy to lose track of these contributions and instead get caught up in finger-pointing and scapegoating immigrants for the pain American workers are enduring. But name-calling won’t get us closer to recovery.
No one is denying that America’s workforce is hurting right now, which is exactly why fixing our broken immigration system is fundamental to healing our businesses and our economy. In fact, Americans who perform our country’s most backbreaking labor are the first to stand up for reform that will actually bring stability to our industries and level the playing field for American workers.
In December, my colleagues in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and I introduced a bill that does exactly that.
For good employers who are struggling with the uncertainty of millions of people in the workforce, who are competing against corrupt employers who flout labor and immigration laws and who are working with all of America to get our economy moving again, our bill addresses their needs. It legalizes 5 percent of the workforce; it eliminates the guesswork in hiring through a smart and dependable employment verification system; and it eradicates the need for localities to take matters into their own hands by requiring businesses and landlords to check IDs of their clients and tenants.
Our bill creates an employment-based visa system that is fair to workers and employers. It establishes a new federal agency within the executive branch entitled the Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets to align visa numbers with actual labor market demands, not political winds. From the immigrants who work in high-tech jobs to those who pick our grapes and strawberries, the commission would study and evaluate labor market conditions and determine how many workers we actually need from abroad to grow our businesses and contribute to our economic recovery.
Comprehensive immigration reform by definition means change that helps workers and business. Unless Congress acts to end the status quo, American workers will continue to be pitted against immigrant workers by unscrupulous employers who drive down wages, avoid taxes and violate labor laws. Taxpayers who pay their full and fair share will continue to be undercut by workers and employers who do not. And employers who pay decent wages, offer good benefits, and follow all the rules will continue to be destabilized by bad-actor employers who game the system.
We cannot put off legislation that ends this kind of unchecked corruption at the expense of our economic security. America’s workers want it for their own protection; American employers need it to operate effectively and ethically; taxpayers deserve it to stop shouldering the cost of a broken system. And Congress owes it to them to do our jobs.
Our bill has the support of 92 original cosponsors. It has the strong backing of labor unions, immigration advocates and faith leaders across the country. It’s time for that powerful community to come together and demand hearings, and it’s most certainly time for the Senate to follow suit.
Economic recovery will not be simple, and it will continue to require tough solutions at every level of our financial sector. But if we ignore the role immigration reform plays in getting us back on track, then Congress and the president will not only have ourselves to blame, but voters to answer to.
Gutierrez chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Taskforce.