America’s broken immigration policies will be one of the critical issues of the 2008 presidential election. The immigration issue has been covered extensively in the media, and stories of raids by immigration officials on businesses that employ undocumented workers are common. At the same time, many American businesses claim that they could not survive without the labor of undocumented workers. People at both ends of the political spectrum agree that America’s immigration policies are not working.
There is a great deal of disagreement, however, over exactly what is wrong with these policies and what should be done to fix the problem. Immigration is an important issue because it involves millions of people. No one is sure exactly how many undocumented immigrants are in the United States. Understandably, undocumented immigrants tend to be quiet about their illegal status. The U. S. Government Accountability Office estimated that there were about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States in 2006 (U. S. Government Accountability Office, 2006).
This number includes about 6. 3 million undocumented workers and their family members who immigrated across the border with them (Passel, 2005, p. 26). Over half of the undocumented immigrants in the United States – a total of 57% of the total undocumented immigrant population – came from Mexico; another 24% came from some other Latin American country (Passel, 2005, pp. 4-5). Immigration touches several emotional hot buttons with voters. Some people feel that immigrants are a personal economic threat because they are taking jobs away from American workers.
The idea of immigrants as threat to American jobs is a running theme on the Lou Dobbs’ show, a popular news program on CNN. Other people are concerned that immigrants, many of whom do not speak English and do not seem to be highly motivated to learn how to speak English, present a threat to mainstream American culture. Finally, it must also be admitted that some of the concerns about immigrants from Mexico are based on nothing more than racist attitudes, prejudice against Mexicans, and the desire to have a segregated society that keeps “them” away from “us”.
Many American business owners argue that they could not stay in business without the low-priced labor that is provided by undocumented immigrants or guest workers. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 1 out of every 5 agricultural or farm employees is an undocumented worker, as are 1 in every 10 employees in restaurants (Passel, 2005, p. 27). Other industries, like construction, cleaning and maintenance services, and other low-skilled jobs, also have a high percentage of undocumented workers.
Life for most Americans would be very different without the work that is done by the undocumented workforce. Without undocumented immigrants, there would be less food on the grocery shelves because there would be fewer workers to harvest crops and to process the food before it gets to the consumer. There would be fewer new buildings, fewer qualified people to repair the buildings that have already been built, and fewer people to help maintain and clean them.
These are only a few of the examples of how the undocumented workforce contributes to the economy of the United States and to the lives of Americans. People should consider these contributions when they hear Lou Dobbs and others talk about rounding up the illegal immigrants and sending them all home. Sending undocumented immigrants back home to Mexico would put some companies out of business and would make it more difficult for the businesses that did survive to meet the expectations of consumers.