Immigration sys­tem needs up­grade

Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday) - - OPINION - BY LINDA CHAVEZ

Thanks­giv­ing week­end should be about more than Black Fri­day sales, left­over tur­key sand­wiches and foot­ball. For most of us, the hol­i­day sym­bol­izes what Amer­ica is all about: thank­ing God for the good for­tune of liv­ing in Amer­ica.

The pil­grims cer­tainly felt that on the first Thanks­giv­ing, hav­ing fled re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion in Eng­land to found colonies in the New World. Suc­ces­sive waves of im­mi­grants have felt the same thing, whether they left home seek­ing free­dom and op­por­tu­nity or were driven out by poverty and vi­o­lence.

And for much of our his­tory as a na­tion, we have taken in these new­com­ers, some­times grudg­ingly be­cause we needed their la­bor. But even­tu­ally, we ac­cepted them, even em­brac­ing many in our fam­i­lies, in­ter­mar­ry­ing and giv­ing rise to a true hy­brid Amer­i­can.

Although the anti-im­mi­grant rhetoric from the pres­i­dent and many oth­ers on the right sug­gests this pat­tern may be chang­ing, I re­main op­ti­mistic that it is not. Sen­ti­ments against im­mi­grants are no worse now than they were at pre­vi­ous points in our his­tory; in­deed, they are less vile, or at least less openly so.

That is not to say that the ef­fort to re­strict not just il­le­gal immigration but le­gal immigration will not con­tinue to rile Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, but it, too, will run its course. The in­escapable fact is that the United States needs im­mi­grants now as it has through much of its his­tory.

We are at full em­ploy­ment, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port from the Fed­eral Re­serve Bank of San Fran­cisco. Our un­em­ploy­ment is lower, at 3.7 per­cent, than at any time in 49 years. Wages are ris­ing mod­estly — which is at­tract­ing even some peo­ple who dropped out of the la­bor force, in­spir­ing them to re-en­ter — but we still have more jobs than work­ers will­ing or able to take them.

In a study by the As­so­ci­ated Gen­eral Con­trac­tors of Amer­ica, 80 per­cent of its mem­bers re­port dif­fi­culty in find­ing salaried or hourly craft work­ers, and nearly half said they ex­pect it to be more dif­fi­cult over the next 12 months. And la­bor short­ages are oc­cur­ring not just in con­struc­tion but in agri­cul­ture and hos­pi­tal­ity, even among the high­est-skilled work­ers.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has ac­knowl­edged that we will have to al­low in more im­mi­grants, not­ing in his post-elec­tion news con­fer­ence, “I want them to come into the coun­try, but they have to come in legally.” Trump has slowed le­gal immigration to the U.S. over the past two years, deny­ing 37 per­cent more ap­pli­ca­tions to im­mi­grate than were re­jected in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s own statis­tics an­a­lyzed in a re­port from the Cato In­sti­tute. But this trend can­not con­tinue long without deal­ing a blow to the econ­omy.

And like it or not, shut­ting off le­gal immigration en­cour­ages more il­le­gal immigration, which may be why il­le­gal immigration has sud­denly in­creased un­der Trump af­ter de­clin­ing for a decade to its low­est level in 50 years.

With Democrats tak­ing con­trol of the House, Con­gress may ac­tu­ally tackle immigration re­form in 2019. The hope is that they will do it in a sen­si­ble way.

Of im­me­di­ate con­cern is a fix for those who re­ceived tem­po­rary re­prieves from de­por­ta­tion be­cause they came il­le­gally as chil­dren. Although the courts have tem­po­rar­ily stopped the pres­i­dent’s ef­fort to shut down the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram, a leg­isla­tive so­lu­tion is the only way to pro­tect the DACA pop­u­la­tion from the whims of a mer­cu­rial pres­i­dent.

But the big­ger is­sue is how to mod­ern­ize our out­dated immigration sys­tem, al­low­ing for more skills-based immigration but re­tain­ing the best as­pects of fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion. The most chal­leng­ing is­sue will be deal­ing with the es­ti­mated 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, some two-thirds of whom have been here for more than a decade.

Since that first Thanks­giv­ing on our shores, Amer­i­cans have en­joyed the mu­nif­i­cence this coun­try af­fords. Those spend­ing their first Thanks­giv­ing here (or their 71st, as I did) should re­mem­ber the sac­ri­fice it has taken for us to be here and ex­tend the gen­eros­ity to new­com­ers.

THE IN­ESCAPABLE FACT IS THAT THE UNITED STATES NEEDS IM­MI­GRANTS NOW AS IT HAS THROUGH MUCH OF ITS HIS­TORY.

RO­DRIGO ABD/AP

Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grants pre­pare to leave Mex­i­cali on Tues­day and make their way to Ti­juana, Mex­ico.

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