As the nation explores immigration reform, The Next America is asking scholars, analysts, policymakers, and others a simple question: If you were to take your expertise before Congress to better explain the short- and long-range challenges facing an increasingly demographically diverse nation, what three points might you make?
Here is the reply of Nancy Foner, distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.She is the author or editor of 16 books on sociology and immigration, including 2005's In a New Land: A Comparative View of Immigration, honored with a book award, and is the editor of the forthcoming One Out of Three: Immigrant New York in the Twenty-First Century.
Point 1: Ramifications of the Fence
The United States has spent many billions of dollars on border enforcement, but this did not stop undocumented immigration. In fact, social scientists have argued that the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border led many Mexicans to settle permanently in the United States because it became more difficult, dangerous, and expensive to go back and forth.
Point 2: Bias
The undocumented are often portrayed as criminals, but the overwhelming majority are the kind of people America likes to celebrate as immigrants who made this country great. They come to work to improve their own and their children's lives. They contribute to this country by working hard and long hours at menial jobs that most Americans will not take — jobs with low pay and unpleasant, sometimes dangerous working conditions and with little or no chance for advancement. They want to live the American Dream, and make a better life for themselves and their children, but without a pathway to legalization — and citizenship — this is not possible.
Point 3: Real Numbers
That an estimated 11 million people are undocumented in the United States today vastly underestimates the impact of undocumented status. Many — perhaps most — undocumented immigrants live in mixed-status families (for example, with U.S.-born citizen children), so a much larger number are affected by legal status issues than 11 million. U.S.-born children of undocumented parents, despite having birthright citizenship, often grow up with economic insecurity owing to their parents' low-paying jobs, the threat of their parents' deportation, and limited access to an array of government programs for which they qualify but which their parents are afraid to apply for.
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.