They design our electronics, harvest our food, staff our research labs and care for our children. Immigrants -- legal and illegal, skilled and unskilled -- by all accounts are vital cogs in the wheel of the U.S. economy, and the money they send back to their families improves the quality of life throughout their homelands.
So why, when both sending and receiving countries benefit, is the quest for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States so politically divisive and often pushed to the legislative back burner?
Immigration policy experts say the caustic partisan debate over who can stay and who must go has been ratcheted up by the lingering joblessness inflicted by the Great Recession and the searing spotlight of Campaign 2012 that illuminated only candidates' points of contention rather than those of convergence.
Now that the election is over and President Obama purportedly is beholden to the 71% of Latino voters who helped propel him to a second term, the more sober analysts of immigration dynamics are predicting that lawmakers of all political stripes will make a priority of devising more fair, efficient and mutually advantageous practices for integrating foreign labor.
"Immigrants operate on supply and demand, like everyone else. If there is a huge supply of jobs, they will come to the United States and look for them. If, as the case has been recently, there is not a huge supply of jobs or work opportunities are declining, then they either don’t come here or they go back," said S. Lynne Walker, vice president of the Institute of the Americas and an immigration policy analyst for more than 20 years. She pointed to a Pew Hispanic Center report in April that tracked the steady decline of undocumented workers, who have been kept at bay by the recession.
Even in the midst of economic crisis, many agricultural, construction and hard-labor jobs are going unfilled, Walker said. "Really and truly, Americans don’t want to be out in the hot sun picking fruits and vegetables and carrying crates on their shoulders."
Tighter border controls, an improving economy in Mexico and recession-fueled anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States are posing problems for many U.S. employers who need foreign workers at both ends of the skills spectrum, said Tamar Jacoby, founder and president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a federation of employers lobbying for better immigration law.
Pressure for more legal opportunities for foreigners to work in U.S. fields, homes and offices also comes from the source countries, first among them Mexico, which need the escape valve of U.S. employment for citizens who can earn seven to eight times what they would at home.
Remittances by foreign-born U.S. workers are a $69-billion annual boon for their home countries, and legal immigrants typically send about 15% more to their families than illegals, said Manuel Orozco, senior analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
Aside from the obvious benefits of cash that bankrolls commerce and construction back home, migrant workers help their native countries improve labor mobility. They also engage in "nostalgia trade," the importing of favorite foods, clothing and media from home, that is conservatively estimated at $1.4 billion a year among the 15 million Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States, Orozco said.
There are negatives: transnational gangs, drug traffic, HIV/AIDS. But for the most part, what immigrant workers bring back to their communities is beneficial, Orozco believes, including "social remittances" like the empowerment of women in traditionally patriarchal societies and commitment to and respect for the rule of law.
"Comprehensive immigration reform will see expansion of skilled labor visas," predicted B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies for the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. A former research chief for the congressionally appointed Commission on Immigration Reform, Lowell said he expects to see at least a fivefold increase in the number of highly skilled labor visas that would provide "a significant shot in the arm for India and China."
There is widespread consensus among economists and academics that skilled migration fosters new trade and business relationships between countries and enhances links to the global economy, Lowell said.
"Countries like India and China weigh the opportunities of business abroad from their expats with the possibility of brain drain, and I think they still see the immigration opportunity as a bigger plus than not," he said.
Those highly skilled migrants usually arrive with legal documents, Lowell said, unlike those entering illegally from Mexico and Central America who make up 80% of the undocumented population.
He sees the risk of encouraging more illegal entries as a possible -- some would say likely -- side effect of comprehensive reform as it would have to include provisions for legalizing many of the millions who have spent decades working and raising families in the United States, he said.
"It's hard to see how a large legalization program would do anything but increase the outflow of migrants from Mexico," Lowell said of proposed amnesty and pathway-to-citizenship solutions, the element of reform that makes it controversial and elusive.
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Photo: Jamaican migrant Augustus Morgan helps with the apple harvest in Winchester, Va., last month. Agricultural employers are among those pressing for more foreign labor to bring in their crops. Credit: Scott Mason / The Winchester Star