Immigration Reform – Testimony of Wade Henderson

Location: Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship

I’d like to begin with what I hope are a few points on which we can all agree.  First, I think it is clear to everyone that our nation’s immigration system is badly broken.  It fails to keep up with economic realities, it does not keep track of who is here, and it does not give people enough incentive to play by the rules.  We clearly need drastic changes.

I think we also agree on the need to include more effective – but also more realistic and more humane – immigration enforcement.  It is simply unrealistic to stretch fences across our borders, and we cannot leave enforcement to local police, or worse, to private groups.  But we can take more sensible measures like hiring more border patrol agents, making better use of technology, and working closely with Mexico against human and drug trafficking.

Third, I hope we can agree on the need to give the millions of undocumented immigrants in our country a realistic, humane way to come out of the shadows and legalize their status.  As a lifelong civil rights advocate, I recognize the treatment of undocumented immigrants is an economic and legal issue of great importance, but I also believe it goes directly to our most fundamental understanding of civil and human rights.

We do not need to condone the violation of immigration laws.  But motives count.  And when we consider why most of our current undocumented population came here, and the role that immigration policies played in aiding and abetting their arrival, it is clear that we should not treat them as fugitives.  If they are otherwise law-abiding and willing to contribute and play by our nation’s rules, then we should provide them with lawful status.

And fourth, because we all agree that families are the backbone of our society, our immigration laws should reflect this – instead of keeping them apart, as they do now.

Moving more directly to the focus of today’s hearing – how to overhaul our immigration system – I am certainly mindful that these are incredibly challenging times.  Our economy is badly struggling, leaving countless numbers of Americans economically insecure.  And Congress obviously has a lot on its plate this year. 

From our perspective, the challenge of immigration reform in 2009 is also pressing.  However, to achieve reform, the American people must be convinced that even in these difficult times, reform makes sense economically as well as morally – and that the needs of all Americans are considered.   For example, the needs of low-wage workers – a group disproportionately composed of African Americans – have long been neglected by policymakers, and this neglect could impede immigration reform.

The situation facing African-American workers is a complicated one, and as I explain in more detail in my written testimony, there is no consensus on whether immigration worsens their employment situation.  For example, long before immigration policies were made more generous in the 1960s, black unemployment rates were twice as high as for white workers, and they have stayed that way even as the immigrant percentage of our population has increased.  Nevertheless, immigration opponents continue to raise the specter of job loss and reduced wages among African Americans.

Economic insecurity is certainly very keenly felt today in the African-American community, as in every community.  But this does not mean that African Americans oppose comprehensive immigration reform – and we have done extensive research that confirms that point.  Instead, it underscores the need for reform proposals that will simultaneously advance the economic well-being of all low-wage workers.

I believe that reform must take two key steps in order to succeed: forge policies that promote economic advancement for native-born workers, and prevent immigrant workers from being exploited and being used to undercut wages for everyone else.

As to the first part, my written statement describes some ideas jointly developed by civil rights leaders to address the concerns of low-income workers across the board.  They include:

  • Better enforcement of antidiscrimination laws;

  • Improved job vacancy notification systems, to give native-born workers better job information;

  • Increased enforcement of workplace standards; and

  • More resources for job skills training and to help workers relocate.

The second key component is an immigration bill that provides for genuinely fair treatment of immigrants, and prevents immigrant workers from being used to undercut standards for all workers.  The American labor movement recently issued a blueprint that embodies these ideas, which my good friend Eliseo Medina will explain in more detail.

Before I finish, I would like to add that most African Americans understand, better than anyone, that it is inherently wrong to divide people along the lines of race or ethnicity or national origin, and that “us versus them” wedge politics hurt everyone in the long run.

Finally, African Americans also take note of how consistently certain groups show their concern for us, across the board – and not just when it comes to immigration.  Sadly, immigration restrictionists rarely show interest in the African-American community at other times.  To anyone who looks closely at where immigration restrictionists stand on other priorities of importance to us, it is clear that they are not – and never have been – our friends.