January 1, 2006
The immigration debate once again is dominated by narrow thinking and the search for simplistic solutions to complex problems. Most lawmakers and the press have come to equate "immigration reform" with the question of whether or not enhanced immigration enforcement should be coupled with a new guest worker program that is more responsive than current immigration policies to the labor needs of the U.S. economy. All but lost in this debate have been the calls by prominent immigration reform advocates to improve and expand pathways for permanent immigration as well. But immigration reform will not be truly comprehensive, or effective, unless it recognizes the vital contributions of temporary workers and permanent immigrants alike, and the inadequacy of the current immigration system in providing legal channels for either to enter the country. Both temporary workers and permanent immigrants fill critical gaps in the U.S. labor force, but permanent immigrants are far more likely to acquire new job skills, achieve upward mobility, learn English, buy homes, create businesses, and revitalize urban areas. Among the findings of this report: In 2003, 48 percent of immigrants who were not U.S. citizens and had been in the United States for 3 years or less reported that they spoke English well, compared to 63 percent for those who had been in the country between 7 and 9 years. Among non-citizen immigrants from Mexico, the share who spoke English well in 2003 rose from 10 percent for those in the country 3 years or less to 26 percent for those in the country between 7-9 years. A workforce composed mostly of temporary workers who leave the country after 6 years would consist in large part of workers who never become highly proficient in English. Among non-U.S. citizen immigrants, only 11 percent who had been in the country 3 years or less owned a home in 2003, compared to 37 percent of those who had been here between 7 and 9 years. The share of non-citizen immigrants from Mexico who owned a home in 2003 rose from 7 percent among those who had been in the country 3 years or less to 26 percent of those who had been here between 7 and 9 years. A temporary-only approach to immigration reform would limit, rather than expand, the number of long-term immigrants who fuel a large portion of the U.S. housing market. Temporary workers have an important role to play in the U.S. economy, but they are no substitute for permanent immigrants who integrate into U.S. society, move up in their jobs, and earn higher incomes over time, thus more fully realizing their economic potential as workers, taxpayers, entrepreneurs, and consumers.