Opinion: Undocumented immigrants are people, too

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Here’s the deal — we’ve got 11.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The debate about immigration reform is raging. To understand it, we need to take a look at the politics of immigration reform, why immigration is an issue and why undocumented immigrants are here in the first place.

What’s currently being debated?

The House of Representatives is in conflict over whether to hold a vote on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which is the fancy term for the immigration reform bill the Senate already passed last June. The bill allows undocumented immigrants a path to apply for citizenship legally, decreases waiting time for immigrants who have already applied and helps new immigrants become self-sufficient through training programs. The bill also tightens border security and strengthens bans on hiring illegal workers.

Why is immigration an issue?

Our system is deeply flawed. To become a legal citizen in this country, you have to first apply for an immigrant visa, also known as a green card, which can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. After that, you still have to wait five more years, learn English if you don’t already know it, take a civics class and jump through bureaucratic hoops to apply for citizenship. With a process that daunting, it’s easy to see why people come here illegally. The problem with having so many undocumented immigrants is that without documentation, they can’t pay income taxes, they can’t get financial aid for college, and, well, they’re here unlawfully. The heavily-politicized argument against them paints them as freeloaders and criminals.

Are these assumptions deserved?

Probably not. Undocumented immigrants still pay sales taxes, property taxes and utility taxes from bills around the house, which makes up for their use of government services. They usually don’t pay federal income tax, but overall, having more immigrants here is actually good for the economy. It turns out that immigrants pay for things, too.

The “illegals are criminals” sentiment is also misguided. Check the numbers — we have identified more than 110,000 undocumented immigrants as criminals in jails. Out of a 11.7 million total, that’s only 0.9 percent. You can’t exactly throw the “you’re all criminals” blanket over undocumented immigrants when less than one percent of them are in jail.

But why should they be given citizenship?

The real problem is that we’re hurting everyone by not allowing undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. By granting them the temporary “Registered Provisional Immigrant” status, we would allow 11.7 million new people to work, which would increase income and payroll tax revenues. And once these immigrants are granted citizenship, they can pursue education and improve our workforce as well as their own lives.

So why aren’t we doing this now?

Political concerns have been holding back the bill’s passing. Republicans are mindful of their need to gain votes among Hispanics, but the most conservative congressmen have been backing away from the bill in the past few weeks.

Republicans don’t want to jump into a debate that could hurt their midterm election chances with staunch conservative voters this year. They think that focusing public discussion on the problems in the Obamacare rollout will help them more.

That might sound like a logical Republican argument, until we remember what the great Ronald Reagan did in 1986 — he gave amnesty to all undocumented immigrants who were here before 1982. The most revered conservative president in history allowed 2.7 million undocumented immigrants to apply for green cards and, eventually, citizenship. Amazingly, the country did not explode — giving immigrants incentive to finish high school, get college degrees, get jobs and buy houses helped the economy back in ‘86, as it would now.

But let’s be honest.

Republicans know that it isn’t outrageous to give these immigrants a path to citizenship, and many in the party support the bill. Some Republican congressmen just want a possible boost in votes from the Hispanic community, but what we all need to do is know that undocumented immigrants are people, not hypothetical vote-fuel.

In Colorado alone, there are 497,105 immigrants, at least 33 percent of whom are undocumented. These are our friends, neighbors and even classmates at CU. Last year, they were granted recognition for in-state tuition in Colorado. But we need to do more. The path to citizenship will allow undocumented immigrants access to financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and other programs, which would open the door to higher education in Boulder and around the country.

Can a nation of immigrants truly not relate to the desire for a better life, the struggle to come to a country of opportunity? This bill isn’t amnesty, it’s compassion. The quote on the Statue of Liberty that says “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” actually means something. Supporting immigration reform reflects our American ideals, and it supports people who are no different from you or me. Their only “crime” was that they were born in a different place.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Ellis Arnold at ellis.arnold@colorado.edu.

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