Welcome Back: Immigrants: They’re here, they’re coming, get used to it

By Bethel Habte / Columnist

There was a point in my childhood when I considered myself an illegal immigrant. I was too young then to understand what being an “asylee” — a permanent refugee — meant, but old enough to understand that immigration was a problem and that illegal “aliens” were stealing our jobs and our prospects for happiness. Now, I know it’s not that simple, but more than ten years later, we continue to treat it like it is.

When I was five, my family left Eritrea in the midst of the most recent Eritrean-Ethiopian War to join my father in Sweden. Shortly after, my father was offered a job in the United States, and we came over as “asylees.” But immigration is rarely so easy and not everyone has the ability to enter the United States legally as we did.

Regardless, people immigrate. They risk their lives, families and even nationalism for the remote opportunity to have a better, safer and more economically sound life. To continue to look at immigration as a matter of merely securing our borders and increasing our force is a waste of our resources and a waste of capabilities. 

As an influx of children and adults from Central America have created a conflict at our borders, it has simultaneously triggered a debate that pulls in two polar directions. We want to remain sensitive to the conditions that are driving the children across the border but we also fear and scorn the blatant disregard for our laws. 

Why are we letting our fears get in the way of our rationality?

Even Republicans, who are blamed most for the hindrance to true reform, have acknowledged the value that immigrants add to our nation. They list reforms to current work programs to better match immigrants to employment needs as a necessary principle for reform. Regardless of whether immigrants were to participate in work programs, their mere existence and ability to act as citizens would significantly benefit our economy

In a report conducted in 2013, The American Immigration Council estimated that if illegal immigrants already living in the United States were legalized, our economy would boost in net personal income by $30 to $36 billion, in tax revenue by $4.5 to $5.4 billion and receive an additional 750,000 to 900,000 jobs as a result of the increased consumer spending, all within three years’ time. 

Obama’s DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — program is also a poignant example of what immigrants can achieve when provided with opportunities. DACA is limited to allowing undocumented immigrants 15-31 years of age who were brought into the United States as children to be granted employment rights, Social Security numbers and low-priority status from deportation for a period of 2 years, with the option of renewal but, according to a study from June 16, 2014 that looked at DACA beneficiaries, a majority have used their new status to gain employment, further their career options through education, obtain bank accounts and credit cards, receive driver’s licenses and gain access to health care. 

By comparison, the benefits of border control and increased enforcement are little to none. According to the American Immigration Council, $186.8 billion has been spent on immigration enforcement since the last major reform initiated in 1986. Yet the number of illegal immigrants entering the country has tripled since then. 

Increased enforcement has only created a more dangerous and expensive path for immigrants and proven that immigration is unavoidable as long as conditions in the U.S. remain superior to those elsewhere. Focusing on creating an immigration reform policy aimed primarily at limiting immigration is ultimately a moot point.

There’s a thin line between immigrants being liabilities and resources and it rests upon opportunity. The manner in which Republicans have clung to immigration reform as a means of validating the legality of our laws by punishing those who had the misfortune of entering this country illegally is counterproductive. What immigration reform should focus on is providing more legal channels for immigrants coming into the United States, as well as working to legalize those already here. 

Let’s face it. Whether they’re here or they’re coming, we’re just going to have to get used to it.

Write Bethel at [email protected]