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 from Robert C. Smith, professor of sociology, immigration studies, and public affairs at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Focusing on Mexican communities in New York and in Puebla for two decades, he is author of the award-winning Mexican New York: Transnational Worlds of New Immigrants" A forthcoming publication, researched while a Guggenheim fellow, is to be called Horatio Alger Lives in Brooklyn... But Check His Papers.
Next America: Why should the U.S. "legalize" long-term undocumented immigrants? Isn't America a country of laws, and didn't they break the law?
Smith: America should legalize undocumented immigrants for its own long-term self-interest, and to honor its own best principles. In my forthcoming book, I report research that shows that children of immigrants who have remained undocumented over the long term — coming as children, and growing to adulthood and even parenthood themselves, all the while undocumented — pay a heavy price in terms of jobs, earnings, and related issues. This was true even for those with stellar records in school, and in public service or religious service. Their U.S.-citizen children also pay a heavy price. Those who were able to legalize before high school ended up doing significantly better, and their U.S.-citizen children grow up in more advantageous circumstances. Legalizing these immigrants — who now pay taxes, subsidize a Social Security system they cannot collect from, and contribute to economic growth — would be fair and would be a smart investment in America's future.
NA: Why should the "Dreamers" — immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children — be given a faster road to citizenship?
Smith: Dreamers, named after the Dream Act that would give them legal status and a road to citizenships through educational achievement or military service, are the biggest victims of our broken immigration system, and are a precious American resource the country has thus far neglected to develop. They also embody key elements of America's beliefs about itself: With no help from the government, many have been able to succeed in school. All these boot-strappers ask for is a fair chance to work like all the other American children they grew up with, and rise or fall on their own merits, rather than on an ascribed status they cannot change.
Legalizing Dreamers would comport with traditional concepts in American law — that children as children should be protected, that guilt does not pass from parent to child, and that laws should have fair results. Dreamers were underage when brought to the U.S. by their parents. The parents committed an administrative violation when crossing the border, and hence the penalty should stop with them. The penalties should also be fair and proportional. Consider this: Would we sentence the child of someone who committed a violent crime to prison? Of course not. Yet those brought to the U.S. as children are, in effect, sentenced to a life at hard, poorly paid labor, because they cannot convert their educational achievement into better jobs. They must work in the illegal economy. We are punishing the children of parents who committed a nonviolent, administrative infraction much more harshly than we would treat the child of a violent criminal. America should be able to give these kids the same chances that their friends had growing up.
NA: What are the upsides of legalizing these immigrants, and downsides of keeping them "illegal"?
Smith: There are many downsides to keeping these 11 million people "illegal." It is bad for American democracy to have a large subsegment of the population who can never become politically integrated into the country. Immigrant neighborhoods can become neglected civic deserts where politicians do not seek votes, and neighborhood concerns do not get heard. Keeping so many people "illegal" — especially children — sends the message to these youth that America does not want them to succeed, and concretely prevents them from succeeding. It prevents them, for example, from converting their hard-earned college diplomas into success in the labor market, because they cannot legally work — making the American creed that hard work will lead to success a lie to millions of youth. The benefits of legalizing these immigrants would be many. They include promoting civic incorporation of immigrants, making it possible for these youth to succeed by their own efforts, and making it truer that America is a land of opportunity.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.