As a 2008 presidential candidate, Obama promised that comprehensive immigration reform which included a path to citizenship for the nearly 12 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the country would be a “priority I will pursue from my very first day.”
Fast forward to 2010, when this purported priority has been relegated to the sidelines amid President Obama’s poor approval ratings and Democrats’ decreasing political capital in Congress. Comprehensive immigration reform should be a national priority, yet we’ve barely heard a whisper from the Obama administration and legislators, who seem reluctant to take a stand on such a contentious issue as the November midterm elections loom.
Why is comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship important for America’s future? Consider this country’s changing demographics. The majority of unauthorized immigrants are of Mexican origin. Latinos (the majority of whom have Mexican ancestry) constitute 15 percent of the population, and the proportion is projected to soar to 30 percent by 2050. This population growth is driven not by escalating rates of international migration across the U.S./Mexican border, but by an increase in the second and third generations who are the native-born children and grandchildren of immigrants. Roughly a quarter of the labor force growth in the next 20 years will be due to the children of Latino immigrants coming of age. This means that their educational attainment and successful integration into the labor market are especially important to America’s economic stability.
Legal status promotes integration into the fabric of America by decriminalizing everyday activities, and by allowing those who live on the margins of society to obtain better-paying jobs. Perhaps more importantly, the benefits of citizenship trickle down to the children of immigrants, whose educational and occupational opportunities are positively or negatively impacted by parental citizenship status.
This makes legal status a key mechanism to promote the mobility of Mexican immigrants and later generations of Mexican Americans. Now is the time to put this ladder of upward mobility in place. A pathway to citizenship is critical to the advancement of America’s largest minority group, and if legislators don’t address comprehensive immigration reform posthaste, there will be high social and economic costs for all Americans.
Jody Agius Vallejo, assistant professor in the USC College Department of Sociology, is an expert on Latino issues and immigrant integration.