Office of Public Policy
100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530
Washington, DC 20002
Since the late 1700’s, immigrants have been coming to this country in pursuit of a better life. In 1790 the United States conducted its first census. Of the 3.9 million people countedduring that census, 64% were British, 7% German, 18% enslaved African-Americans, and 2 percent free African Americans.1 At that time, 91% of the U.S. population was immigrants. According to a recent report released by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2003, 33.5 million people, or 11.7% of the total U.S. population of 290,000,000, were foreign born. The report also stated that 53.3% of immigrants in the U.S. are from Latin America (36.9% from Central America, 10% from the Caribbean and 6.3% from South America), 25% are from Asia, 13.7% are from Europe and 8% are from the remaining regions of the world.2 There are over 150 million migrants in the world today and the United States receives less than 2% of the world’s migrants annually.3
There are many reasons why a person leaves their home country to start a new life in a different one. Some people emigrate to flee violence, war or political persecution in their home country. Some want a better standard of living and greater economic prosperity. Some individuals emigrate to join family members who have already left. Of these major factors, “economic motives are the strongest force promoting immigration.”4 According to the Urban Institute Immigration Studies Program, “immigrants compose an increasingly large share of the U.S. labor force and a growing share of low-wage workers.”5 Immigrants make up 11% of the total U.S. population but they represent 14% of the U.S. labor force and 20% of the nation’s low-wage labor force, or 8.6 million. In 2002, two million immigrant workers earned less than the minimum wage. Immigrant women earn substantially lower wages than immigrant men or native women. About 5% of the U.S. labor force consists of undocumented immigrants, most of who are working for low-wage jobs. Undocumented workers make up less than 10% of the total number of low-wage workers in the United States.6 Most low-wage immigrant workers are employed in private household services, farming, forestry, fishing, low-skill manufacturing and service occupations.7
While many immigrants coming to the United States speak English well and have strong academic backgrounds and skills, many others do not. Those who do not are the immigrants that make up a large portion of the low-wage workforce. “Immigrant workers are much more likely than [non-immigrants] to drop out of high school (30 versus 8 percent), and far more likely to have less than a ninth-grade education (18 versus 1 percent). Three-fourths of all U.S. workers with less than a ninth-grade education are immigrants.”8 Almost half of immigrants have limited English proficiency and 62% of low-wage workers are “limited English proficient (LEP).”9 Unfortunately, due to reasons such as lack of sufficient education, language skills or legal status, many hard working immigrants are not able to better their lives. Many publicly or privately funded training programs are usually geared towards managers or highly skilled workers and do not accommodate LEP participants.10
Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, contribute significantly to the U.S. economy. Immigrants add about $10 billion each year to the U.S. economy. In 1997, immigrant households paid an estimated $133 billion in direct taxes to federal, state and local governments. Immigrants who become U.S. citizen pay higher taxes than native-born citizens. “As America’s workforce ages, and the ‘baby boomers’ retire, immigrants will again play an essential role in reducing a long-term projected labor shortage.” Also, “the total net benefit to the Social Security system in today’s dollars from continuing current levels of immigration is nearly $500 billion for the 1998-2022 period and nearly $2.0 trillion through 2072. Our population is aging, and each worker will be supporting a growing population of retirees.”11
Despite the contributions immigrants are making to American society, many are unable to become legal residents or citizens. Those immigrants who have embarked on the long and difficult journey to become legal residents or citizens are now faced with cumbersome post 9/11 rules and regulations. Some of these new regulations include the now suspended “National Security Entry-Exit Registration System” (NSEERS), which was run by the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) under the Department of Homeland Security. Under NEERS, which was implemented in 2002, men and boys over 16 years of age from 25 countries had to report to INS offices where they were photographed, fingerprinted, and interviewed under oath. Although this program was a voluntary process, many immigrants who voluntarily appeared at INS offices in compliance with the new system, were detained on the grounds that their visas were not up to date-despite their having correctly filed applications for permanent residency that were pending due to INS backlogs.12
In January of this year President Bush announced a proposal for a temporary worker program, or guest worker program, to help reform U.S. immigration law and provide undocumented workers in the United States with temporary authorization to work in the U.S. According to the program, visas would be available for a 3-year period and be renewable, but workers would be required to return to their home country once their period of work was completed. Approximately 8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S could be affected by this proposal.13 The Administration has still not provided specific information on what exactly the program entails and not much progress has been made in the passage of the proposal. According to what information is available about the program, “most immigrant advocacy groups have opposed the proposal, as it does not offer permanent residence to the 8 to 12 million undocumented residents in the U.S. and because of the enormous potential for workplace exploitation. Many anti-immigrant groups oppose the proposal because they interpret it as a form of amnesty. Few groups support the proposal…but most welcome the opportunity to bring change to a currently unworkable immigration system.”14
Congress also has been working on passing new immigration laws but very little progress has been made. The Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003 (the AgJobs bill) (H.R. 3142 and S.1645) was a bipartisan effort to allow certain unauthorized agricultural workers to become lawfully admitted as temporary non-immigrants and permanent resident non-immigrants. The Safe, Orderly Legal Visas Enforcement (SOLVE) Act of 2004 (S.2381 and H.R. 4262), supported widely by immigrant, labor, faith and other community leaders, is a comprehensive immigration reform legislation which would allow certain unauthorized immigrants to adjust their legal status; address the backlog of residency or citizenship applications by easing numerical limitation requirements; create the H-1d temporary worker program; and establish a variety of protections for immigrant workers.15 Another major bill that was introduced in the Senate was the DREAM Act (S.1545), also known as the Student Adjustment Act (H.R. 1684) in the House. “Each year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from our nation’s high schools. Many of these students, due to their immigration status, face a number of roadblocks in pursuing higher education. Although they have attended the same schools and grown up in the U.S., they lack access to in-state tuition rates, as well as the financial support, that are available to their U.S.-born peers. In effect, through no fault of their own, these students are often unable to attend college.”16 The Dream Act and the Student Adjustment Act provides conditional residency to undocumented students who have lived in the U.S for five years under certain criteria.17 All of these bills are still waiting approval in Congress.
Immigrant advocacy groups such as the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC), the National Network for Immigration and Refugee Rights, the National Council of La Raza and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee are all working hard to inform immigrant communities about their rights and policy developments in regards to immigrant rights and civil rights and liberties. These groups along with many others are also working strenuously to advocate for immigrant rights. Some issues these organizations are working on are: promoting equality for immigrant workers by advocating for better wages and working conditions; advocating for immigration policies that are fair and nondiscriminatory; working with policymakers to provide them with information on the concerns and needs of immigrant communities; advocating for legal access and fair treatment of immigrants who are detained or undergoing deportation procedures; and advocating for access to public services and benefits such as housing, health care and education.
Contact your Representatives or Senators offices to find out more about AgJobs bill (H.R. 3142 and S.1645), SOLVE Act (S.2381 and H.R. 4262) or DREAM Act (S.1545). You may also visit the Library of Congress’ website at http://thomas.loc.gov/ for further information on these bills. Write to your Representatives and Senators and urge them to support these acts. Urge them to ensure that immigrants gain access to training, education, public services and better wages.
Learn more about and meet immigrants in your community or volunteer with local immigrant organizations. To find out what local immigrant advocacy groups are active in your community call our office at (202) 488-5660. UMCOR also has a program called Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) which has clinics around the United States where you may volunteer or meet immigrants living in your community. To find out more about this program you may write to JFON-UMCOR at 8900 Georgia Ave., Room 208, Silver Spring, MD 20910, call them at (240) 450-1186 or e-mail them at email@example.com.
Read Book of Resolutions 2000 #248, “Assistance, Sanctuary & Deportation Relief for Central American, Caribbean, Salvadorian and Other Refugees” (p.624); #249, “Immigrants and Refugees: To Love the Sojourner” (p. 625); and #250, “Immigrants in the United States: Ministries of Hospitality, Advocacy & Justice” (p.632).
2 The U.S. Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/p20-551.pdf
3 The National Network for Immigration and Refugee Rights. http://www.nnirr.org/immigration/immigration_faq.html
4 American Friends Service Committee. http://www.afsc.org/immigrants-rights/learn/roots.htm
5 The Urban Institute Immigration Studies Program. Immigrant Families and Workers: Facts and Perspectives. Brief No.4. A Profile of the Low-wage Immigrant Workforce. November 2003.
6 Passel, Jeffers S., Randy Capps and Michael Fix. Undocumented Immigrants: Facts and Figures. Urban Institute Immigration Studies Program. January 12, 2004.
7The Urban Institute Immigration Studies Program. Immigrant Families and Workers: Facts and Perspectives. Brief No.4. A Profile of the Low-wage Immigrant Workforce. November 2003.
9 National Immigration Law Center. Facts About Immigrants. July 2004
10The Urban Institute Immigration Studies Program. Immigrant Families and Workers: Facts and Perspectives. Brief No.4. A Profile of the Low-wage Immigrant Workforce. November 2003.
11 The National Immigration Forum. http://www.immigrationforum.org/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=179
12 Human Rights First. http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/us_law/immigrants/special_registration.htm
13 National Conference of State Legislators. http://www.ncsl.org/programs/immig/immigreformsummaries.htm
14 American Friends Service Committee. http://www.afsc.org/immigratns-rights/news/out-of-the-shadows.htm
15 National Conference of State Legislators. http://www.ncsl.org/programs/immig/immigreformsummaries.htm
16 National Council of La Raza. http://www.nclr.org/content/policy/detail/1331/
17 American Friends Service Committee. http://www.afsc.org/immigrants-rights/policy/pending-legislation.htm
Sep 23, 2004