11 May Challenges for Undocumented Immigrants
By Gerson Galdamez & Zach Gassoumis – After years of unproductive dithering by Congress, President Obama stepped in and took executive action on immigration in late 2014. Immigration debates generally involve people blindly defending their political positions, without making sure that there is reliable data to support their ideas. As a result, public discussions concerning President Obama’s executive action have been misinformed and heated, to say the least. This type of debate is unlikely to resolve the complex issues facing our immigration system. And the stakes over resolving the issue are huge; the future direction of immigration policies in the U.S. will have serious consequences—either positive or negative—for racial/ethnic minority groups, and for the entire country.
Dr. Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, visited the University of Southern California recently to shed some light on these debates. He presented data from a range of Pew’s surveys to answer some pressing questions: What exactly was the executive action taken by President Obama? What does the public think about it? How can we interpret the negative responses to executive action from certain states?
President Obama’s November 2014 executive action had two goals: to expand DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and introduce DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents). Dr. Lopez noted that the biggest impact will be felt among undocumented parents of children who were born in the U.S., as they now have an opportunity to extend temporary protected status. The primary reasons some immigrants would still not be eligible for protected status is if they did not come to the U.S. as a child (required for DACA), or if they do not have a U.S.-born child (required for DAPA). And those who otherwise qualify for DACA or DAPA would lose eligibility if they have not lived in the U.S. continuously since January 1, 2010.
Public opinion polls, according to Dr. Lopez, show that support for unauthorized immigration reform has waned over time, mainly among conservatives. Although a majority of whites disagree with President Obama’s executive action, 70% agree that the U.S. should provide some legal route for unauthorized immigrants to stay in the country. The ongoing conflicts about what this legal route should be, however, brings to light an important reality: wording matters. Dr. Lopez noted that using different terminology can alter how people respond. For example, surveys that use Obama’s name and/or the terms “illegal”, “undocumented”, and “unauthorized” elicit more negative responses on immigration issues than questions that used less politically-charged terminology.
Some states have initiated legal action against the administration over DACA and DAPA. Led by Republican governors, these states are claiming that the President’s executive action will cause them substantial financial hardship. Statistics by Dr. Lopez and the LES research team suggest that this “financial hardship” takes the form of actually paying Latino workers fairly. For example, Nevada is home to one of the largest undocumented immigrant populations in the U.S.; undocumented workers comprise 10% of their workforce. This means that, for one out of ten workers, the state avoids the financial responsibility of giving these workers benefits, while reaping the rewards of their labor. This provides a strong economic incentive for the state to maintain the status quo (keeping Latinos working for a bare minimum) rather than support immigration reform.
Documentation means a surge in opportunities for socioeconomic growth among Latinos. A stronger Latino workforce dramatically improves the prospects for financial stability in Latino populations. The LES team’s research indicates that it also offers the potential for a national economic boost. This boost—which would be crucial as both our minority and aged populations are booming—will help cultivate certain aged-based benefits, like Social Security and Medicare. Supporting Latino earning power, savings, and investment would help establish financial security over the life course for this large minority population. Economic security enables a high-quality retirement, an increasingly pressing concern in the midst of the U.S. aging “boom.” Going forward, discussions of immigration policy must take these issues into account. We must delve into the effect of documentation on Latinos’ economic security across the lifespan, and remove economic disparities so that all current workers can attain a comfortable retirement.
The aging populating and emerging minority groups (such as Latinos) are interdependent. Investing in the Latino workforce provides some desperately needed manpower. We need people to serve older adults. We need people to contribute to pay-as-you-go social insurance programs that support the current senior population. We need to embrace, invest, and celebrate in not only who we have been, but also who we are becoming. Ignoring the realities of our changing population will only widen the chasm of economic disparity and insecurity, and stall our goals for national prosperity.