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May 6, 2013
Guest opinion: Much at stake in immigration reform

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(May 6 -- By Manuel Pastor, Special to The Bee)

With the U.S. Senate finally poised to discuss immigration reform, it is important that those of us in California stay focused on what this might mean in the state and what is needed in a bill - and after - to help the state prosper.

California clearly has multiple interests in getting reform right. A wide range of issues currently under discussion are critical: the extent to which our high-tech industries will be able to recruit high-skill workers, the ways in which agricultural labor flows will be stabilized and those workers protected, the degree to which family reunification remains a guiding principle for decisions about who to let into the country and how. But one of the issues most important for our state: insuring a clear and rapid road map to citizenship for the unauthorized or "undocumented" migrant population.

After all, California is home to more than 10.3 million immigrants and more than 2.6 million of them are estimated to be unauthorized, a figure that amounts to nearly one-quarter of the national total. More important, they are our neighbors, relatives, colleagues and friends. According to a series of estimates generated by Enrico Marcelli of San Diego State and me, undocumented Californians constitute 7 percent of the state's population, 8 percent of all adults, and 9 percent of the workforce.

While the numbers are impressive, more striking is the degree to which they have become woven into California's social, civic and economic life. Many settled in California long ago; almost half - 49 percent - of the state's undocumented immigrants have lived here for more than 10 years. They are not just Latinos. Asians constitute 12 percent of the unauthorized population. And whatever the national origin, they are deeply connected to the state's citizenry. Of the 6 percent of households headed by undocumented immigrants, nearly three-fourths have at least one citizen living there as well.

The potential legalization and eventual naturalization of these immigrants would most likely economically benefit the state. Focusing specifically on the undocumented population, the Center for American Progress recently suggested that a road map to citizenship could generate a 25 percent boost in immigrant income, whereas a more conservative estimate for the state generated last year by USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration suggests a more modest gain of more than 14 percent. Either means a boost in state GDP, multiplied over several years and many sectors.

And these aren't the only benefits. Roughly one in six of the state's children has at least one undocumented immigrant parent, and more than 80 percent of such children are U.S. citizens. Stabilizing and improving the situation of these children and their parents is an investment in our state's long-term future.

Just as important: what happens the day after reform. While the current policy debate has often been about enforcement and future flows, surely a crucial task is accelerating the progress of those who are already here. This will be a special challenge if, as expected, federal funding from fines and fees targets enforcement rather than supporting the places where immigrant integration is happening - our state included.

In fact, a relatively restrictive bill is expected - barring immigrants from eligibility of any public benefits for the first 10 years (the period over which the bill is economically assessed) - and so many of the direct costs will fall on states. This is problematic since funds will need to be immediately directed toward educational attainment, health insurance and English language acquisition in order maximize the contributions of all immigrants to the Golden State.

California has had a long and convoluted relationship with its undocumented population (just think of Proposition 187), but the state now seems to be moving past punitive policies toward embracing its entire immigrant population. Santa Clara County has an Immigrant Relations and Integration Services office, Los Angeles has a cross-sector Council on Immigrant Integration, and state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, introduced Senate Bill 23 to establish a state Office of New Americans - much like those in Chicago and New York.

Getting immigration reform right in the nation and in the state will require better understanding undocumented Californians and developing a shared and widespread understanding that their integration will benefit the state.

Manuel Pastor is director of USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration and the co-author, with Enrico Marcelli, of a new report called "What's At Stake for the State: Undocumented Californians, Immigration Reform and Our Future Together."

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