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In the Immigration Debate, Why Does Citizenship Matter?

DREAMer activist Gaby Pacheco.

In the immigration debate, why does citizenship matter?

That was the theme of a series of panels hosted by AFL-CIO at the headquarters today in Washington, D.C. The answers were varied, but took two main directions. The first answer is the concrete benefits that immigration provides, both to the immigrant and to the community they move to and work in. The second is the moral dimension that accompanies the efforts of people seeking work so they can improve the lives of themselves and their families, particularly in a current system that allows for them to be exploited.

According to the various panelists, there are a number of concrete benefits that citizenship for immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, brings.  Economist and former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin noted that immigrants who are citizens make 8–11% more in pay than do non-citizens, when you control for other factors. He also noted that a new REMI report found that a road map to citizenship will create 600,000 new jobs. Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, pointed out that undocumented immigrants don't have access to the right to collectively bargain.  Evidence is pretty clear that the more workers have access to collective bargaining, the better all workers do in terms of workplace rights and wages. When workers' wages grow, the economy grows with them. With a path to citizenship in place, employers are also less likely to take advantage of the workers, particularly when they lose deportation as leverage against workers who attempt to organize. Once undocumented immigrants are given legal status and put on the road map to citizenship, they will gain workplace protections and labor laws, which will inevitably lead to higher wages—not to mention the moral aspect of lessening the exploitation of immigrant workers.

Many aspiring citizens report that their lives are filled with incidents that deprive them of their humanity, DREAM activist leader Gaby Pacheco said. Citizenship would change that. "Citizenship is beyond a piece of paper. It is the opportunity to live, to be engaged, to be seen as equal," she said. Alejandro Ruelas of LatinWorks agreed, noting that when he grew up with his family, they "lived in constant state of fear," which was "an inhumane way of living."

Contrary to a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric, immigrants, undocumented or documented, provide a benefit to the community they join. Eisenbrey argued that the more open the system is to immigrants, the more benefit they add to the economy. "As immigrants come out of the shadows, income goes up, spending goes up, the economy grows," he said. Immigrants add to the economy in numerous ways, from paying taxes to starting businesses. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas said that he has paid taxes since he was 18 years old, long before he gained legal status in the United States. "I am not an economic burden to them. I am not taking away a slice of the pie, I'm making the pie bigger."

Many of the panelists agreed that it isn't going to be simply economic statistics that change the way people think about immigrants, though, it's the personal stories and the values and morals associated with them that are important. The numbers can help confirm the values that immigrants profess are true, which they do, but people's hearts and minds are changed by people, not figures. 

One of the key things that most undocumented immigrants, particularly the younger generation, share is that they don't think of themselves as outsiders. "I am an American. My country just doesn't recognize it yet," Vargas said. The key is to make sure that people understand this, which is done by telling the stories that immigrants bring with them in terms that express their values. "You don't become American by virtue of race/ethnicity, but by buying into values of liberty, equality, citizenship," said Manuel Pastor, University of Southern California professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.

The panelists were in agreement that a new immigration policy was going to happen regardless of the outcome of the current legislative debate. It might be delayed, but it was inevitable, particularly since younger conservatives are much more in favor of reform than they have been in previous attempts to pass a comprehensive immigration policy. "This debate is about the changing face of this country...and also the fear of that change," Pacheco said. Vargas added that for change to come, people need to have more face-to-face conversations and not just get stuck in their own corners. "Be uncomfortable. Try to talk to those who don't agree with you. Because our futures are at stake," he said.

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