Guest Commentary

By Bob Anderson


Creating effective fences for undocumented workers


As a fifth generation Iowan whose ancestral roots are in Norway, Sweden, Germany, England and Ireland, I continue to be committed to the benefits that immigrants bring to the United States. My commitment strengthened when our family and our church sponsored Tai Dam refugees in the 1970s and with my support of Iraqi refugees in the past year. We can be very proud of the contributions that those immigrants and their families have made to our state. Iowa needs the vitality and determination that young immigrants bring to. I recently participated in the Immigrant Entrepreneurial Summit held for its second year in Des Moines, and learned that more than 60 new businesses had been created by participating immigrants from the previous year. I can cite heartwarming stories of recent immigrants whose children have gone on to gain college degrees and play key roles in Iowa communities.

Nevertheless, I am concerned with the growing number of undocumented workers who continue to be enticed to come to the United States by unscrupulous employers or their agents in Latin America. Thousands of persons dreaming of a better way of life have lost their lives and their savings while crossing Mexico and the U.S. border. Resulting low wages have also been detrimental to low-income and low-educated Americans. My father was a carpenter, and my grandfather worked in meat processing. Both of them were able to gain wages suitable for supporting a family. While many Americans speak of Fair Trade Coffee in other countries, we should also recognize that our lower food prices and lower construction costs are often the result of unreasonable labor conditions for both documented and undocumented immigrants.

There are both tragic human and economic costs to illegal immigration, and developing a comprehensive immigration law should be the goal of all Americans regardless of political perspective. Both Democrats and Republicans need to stop posturing about the U.S. immigration laws and move this year to begin to develop a workable system.

Clearly something similar to the 1986 law should be unacceptable. Rather than stemming the flow of undocumented workers, the 1986 restrictions against employers had no real enforcement powers. Persons or companies hiring fewer than four employees were exempt, and large companies could engage contractors who hired the illegal workers protecting the large company’s management from the law. Jobs are the magnets that have drawn more than 12 million persons to risk their lives and financial resources to cross the U.S. borders illegally. Whether one million Americans hire four or fewer undocumented immigrants (maids, nannies, gardeners, construction workers etc.) or large employers contract outside agencies to recruit hundreds of illegal workers, the end result is the same. The law against having undocumented workers should have no exceptions and should be enforceable. Let’s not repeat the greatest error in the 1986 law. Border enforcement is an ingredient, but it is not a solution without strong employer enforcement. I am pleased that a new top priority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is to “create a culture of employer compliance.” Businesses that are driven more by long-term stability and not short-term greed also support that change.

While most persons recognize that it would be economically, legally and morally irresponsible to break up families and deport 12 million persons, members of Congress have failed to agree to a plan that forces illegal immigrants out of the shadows, provides penalties and a path for citizenship. The new law must combine a strict enforcement for employers with a program that would require undocumented workers to register, pass background checks, pay their full share of taxes and penalties and earn the privilege of citizenship while creating legal channels for future immigration flows that unite families and benefit economic development in the United States.

Passing the Dream Act for talented young people, who have spent most of their lives in the United States, would be one action that could happen this year. We have already invested significant dollars in these young persons and moving them toward citizenship benefits everyone.

At the same time, the U.S. should be encouraging more immigration where it is in our long-term best interests. Global diversity is one of the economic strengths of the United States. We know that immigrants developed the majority of Silicon Valley success stories. International students and scholars provide major economic benefits to the United States adding about seventeen billion dollars per year. The U.S. should develop a more effective strategy for recruiting international students (We are currently losing our market share.) One approach would be to increase practical training opportunities to two years for international students and scholars.

U.S. agriculture and other sectors need guests workers, but the system must be created that can account for them legally, pay them fairly and protect them from unscrupulous employers.

Finally, the United States must also recognize that economic development in Latin America would reduce the incentive for illegal immigration. Our tremendous investment in Europe and Asia after World War II has led to significant global benefits. Today, European countries invest a greater percent of their budgets in international development than the United States.

Border control is important for national security reasons, but cracking down on employers of illegal immigrants and assisting economic development in Latin America would create a more effective fence for undocumented workers from all around the world. CV


Bob Anderson is a former Lieutenant Governor of Iowa and founder of Iowa Resource for International Service, a non-profit organization that has worked to link Iowa with other parts of the world.

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