If you haven’t heard about immigration during the last few months, then you haven’t been listening. The immigration debate rarely captures the spotlight; but few, if any, issues are more hotly debated today. Most of today’s hot-button issues are in some way connected to immigration. The economy and national security, once considered separate issues, are now closely tied to the immigration debate. The only major issue in American politics not connected to immigration is gasoline prices. And given enough space, you probably could make an argument that the two actually are related.
My point here, however, is not to convince you that immigration is important. I assume you either believe that, or you never will. Instead, my purpose is to show you how the U.S. immigration system is broken. When you see how dysfunctional our immigration system really is, then you can appreciate why the so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform really is not-so-comprehensive.
Illegal immigrants represent our first problem. By even the most conservative estimates, we have several million illegal immigrants within our borders. Do not be fooled; this is not exclusively a problem with Mexican nationals. Sure, Mexican nationals are more common amongst the illegal population. But I regularly meet European, Asian, and African clients who have been in the U.S. for several years with no legal status. Some estimate that nearly 1/3 of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. are visa overstays; and the vast majority of these illegal immigrants are not from Mexico.
Illegal immigrants are blamed for taking jobs away from Americans, suppressing wages, and taxing our public benefits systems, including schools and health care. All of these complaints have some validity. But consider this: many clients legally hire Mexican workers for non-competitive positions. Before hiring Mexican workers, these clients first must recruit U.S. workers. This includes contacting local unemployment offices for referrals as well as advertising in newspapers and on the radio. In my years of practice, no client has ever filled its available positions with U.S. workers.
When I think of immigration reform and illegal immigrants, I am not worried about the family of five that lives and works amongst us. Their children go to school, the parents work, and they remain invisible to the average person. Instead, I worry about employers who exploit illegal immigrants, knowing that this population will not complain or file suit. I worry about sham businesses that prey on the immigrant community, taking their money in exchange for empty promises of “legalization.” I also worry about “coyotes,” who make more money trafficking in illegal immigrants than trafficking in illegal drugs.
Ultimately, the system is broken; but illegal immigrants are a symptom of the problem, not the root cause. Keep in mind that illegal immigrants risk life and limb to get here and to stay here. And they take those risks because they know that jobs (and money) are readily available. But the illegal immigrants are not making hiring decisions. And if there were no jobs there would be little or no illegal immigrants. So maybe the root cause for illegal immigration is not found in Mexico. Maybe we can find it much closer to home.
Michael E. Coles graduated from Duke University with a B.A. degree in political science and African-American studies and a J.D. degree. He began his legal career at Winstead Sechrest & Minick P.C. and he founded The Coles Firm PC, a labor and employment law boutique.