When I served our country in the U.S. Navy in the 1990s, I was protecting American values of freedom and democracy. Today, however, I am alarmed to find those values replaced by a cruel campaign to deport working moms and dads who have lived here legally for many years. As an immigrant, a veteran and the leader of a labor union representing thousands of hardworking temporary protected status holders, I find insulting the notion that immigrants are deadweight, taking advantage of a nation that was built by immigrants in the first place.
When I was 13, my family sent me to the United States undocumented, so that I would not be killed in the bloody civil war raging in El Salvador. I still remember helping my father, an ambulance driver, prop up our mattress against the door to block the gunshots that often rained into homes, intentionally and accidentally claiming lives every day.
Tearing families apart and sending them back to face the imminent danger that they risked their lives to escape in the first place isn’t just inhumane, it would also destroy communities and wreck our economy. Extreme poverty and gang violence continue to make El Salvador a terrifying place to live today. That’s why the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a moral obligation to extend temporary worker status and Congress must recognize their basic responsibility to devise a long-term solution to this crisis.
The facts are plain to see throughout the D.C. region. Over the years, Salvadorans, Hondurans and many other temporary worker status recipients have built thriving lives here, buying homes, starting businesses, serving in the military and raising young Americans. As many studies have shown, immigrants, no matter their status, commit crime at a lower rate than native-born residents. In fact, temporary worker status recipients must pass criminal background checks every 18 months.
Temporary worker status recipients also do the jobs that most Americans won't do, working at a higher rate of 88 percent than the overall population at a rate of 63 percent. A majority is working more than 40 hours per week, playing a critical role in helping to rebuild our nation's shrinking middle class. These men and women are also more likely than U.S. born workers to be small business owners and offer specialized skills that would be hard to replace. Moreover, an overwhelming majority pay income taxes that our governments have come to rely on.
Ending temporary worker status would cost employers $1 billion in immediate turnover costs, while our nation would lose nearly $45 billion in economic growth and another $6.9 billion in lost Social Security and Medicare contributions over a decade. It would also put over 60,000 mortgages at risk of foreclosure, creating zombie houses that are an invitation to crime, while leaving federal government on the hook for billions of dollars. Nearly half of all temporary worker status recipients have furthered their education in the United States, nearly a third have volunteered in civic organizations, and nearly a quarter have engaged in activities to benefit to their community, including donating blood, cleaning streets and more.
I challenge leaders in Congress and the Trump administration to look into the eyes of the parents who risked their lives and their children’s to escape war and poverty, who are simply trying to build a life for their families like anyone else. Now that I am a father, I find it unthinkable and horrific to imagine having to make the same choice that my parents did 30 years ago. Thankfully, I’m far from alone. An overwhelming majority of faith, labor and business groups are united in their resolve to protect immigrants and their families, who are indispensable to our communities and keep our economy running.
Jaime Contreras, a naturalized U.S. citizen and U.S. Navy veteran, is a vice president at 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 163,000 property services workers in 11 states, including 18,000 in the Washington, D.C. area, the majority of whom hail from El Salvador.