Chances are you didn't suffer terribly from the recent Day Without Immigrants, a nationwide strike meant to demonstrate the economic impact of foreign-born workers. Energized by President Donald Trump's promise to deport millions who live here without permission, immigrants in Chicago and elsewhere took the day off to march and rally. They didn't work; they didn't shop. Some firms that rely heavily on immigrant labor closed their doors in solidarity.
But a single day without immigrants barely hints at the economic value of those workers. It's not long enough, for example, to disrupt the produce delivery chain. But the grocery store is one of the first places Americans will suffer the consequences of an ill-considered purge.
About a fourth of the nation's farm laborers are immigrants here illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. We depend on them to pick our fruits and vegetables. Deporting them — or chasing them away — leads to huge labor headaches for growers and higher prices for consumers while crops rot in the fields.
Losing that workforce could shift up to 61 percent of U.S. fruit and vegetable production to other countries because of labor shortages, the American Farm Bureau Federation said in 2014. Imagine what that would do to the cost of a dinner salad.
Tough talk on immigration was a pillar of Trump's presidential campaign. One of his first official acts was to sign an executive order instructing immigration officials to cast a much wider net for deportations. Under President Barack Obama, immigration agents focused on expelling convicted criminals and recent arrivals, not those who are living and working here without permission but otherwise law-abiding. That policy wasn't just a matter of prioritizing resources; it was an acknowledgment that those immigrants are a net positive for the U.S.
Trump doesn't get that. On Tuesday, his Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, issued guidelines designed to deport more immigrants, and faster. Deportation officers were given latitude to conduct more raids in immigrant communities, to detain people without criminal records and to remove them even for minor infractions like driving without a license.
The plan calls for hiring 10,000 new immigration officers and 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and for a renewed push to enlist local law enforcement officers to serve as de facto immigration cops. It also calls for building more detention facilities and of course, that wall along the Mexican border. Kelly says deporting criminals is still the top priority, but White House press secretary Sean Spicer says Trump "wanted to take the shackles off these agencies."
We'll stipulate that it's not in the country's best interests to have 11 million people living here without the blessing of our government. That's a sobering measure of the failure of our immigration system. But throwing them out — and trying to lock down the border to keep them out — would make things worse instead of better.
The immigration system exists to maintain an orderly flow of workers to meet the nation's labor needs. That balance has been out of whack for decades. Immigrants break our laws to work here — and American businesses break those laws to hire them — because the system doesn't allow enough of them to fill jobs where they are needed most.
Trump doesn't talk about that piece of the immigration puzzle. Neither do the members of Congress who have spent so many years railing about lawbreakers instead of fixing a dysfunctional system. We'll say it again: The solution to illegal immigration is legal immigration.
Immigrants here illegally make up almost 5 percent of the U.S. workforce. They are concentrated in industries that desperately need them now — agriculture, construction, hospitality and caregiving, to name a few. We can't throw them out and replace them with legal workers because our immigration system will not admit enough of them. And no, American workers are not lined up to take those jobs, especially with unemployment at less than 5 percent.
Studies show those 11 million immigrants are responsible for about $150 billion a year in spending. They pay an estimated $7 billion a year in Social Security taxes (even though they'll never collect) and $11.6 billion in state and local taxes, despite being ineligible for Medicare, unemployment, food stamps and most other government benefits. More than half of them file federal income tax returns, according to the IRS.
Deporting those immigrants is a self-defeating exercise with an enormous price tag. And nobody's even pretending we could get Mexico to pay for it.
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