Immigration Reform: A Humanist (and President’s) Concern

American politicos and the national news media have spoken for months now about the need to address the country’s growing immigration problem and finally deal with people who have entered the country illegally. Many conservatives in government are approaching the situation cautiously, well aware that the lack of support they received from the growing Hispanic constituency is a massive electoral vulnerability while still remembering that many of their other constituents are rabidly anti-immigrant.

So far, not much has actually been done, and no new legislation has made its way through the House or the Senate. However, a bipartisan group of 8 senators recently proposed a framework for what future immigration reform legislation could look like, and President Obama advocated repeatedly for reform during his inauguration and recent State of the Union address.

While the details of immigration reform have yet to be formally agreed upon, the facts surrounding the debate merit a concerted effort by the American public to assist those who came to this country looking for a fresh start. This country has a proud history of being a nation of immigrants, and we remain just as dependent as we always were on the entrepreneurship and work ethic of those who immigrate here.

For example, immigrants contribute $37 billion per year to the economy, and areas with high levels of immigrants often experience very high levels of economic growth when compared to their less immigrant friendly neighbors. Immigrants have also helped to keep Social Security solvent by contributing hundreds of billions of dollars to the Social Security Trust Fund, a program which many immigrants aren’t able to even use because of their legal status.

But economic reasons alone aren’t why immigrants should be given a home in America. The real reason immigrants, both legal and illegal, deserve a place in America is because of a basic tenet of our society: those who are willing to work hard and take risks should be afforded the opportunity to do so.

The idea of coming to a new country, either legally or illegally, in order to work a job few people want for very little pay is perhaps the very definition of risk. Many new immigrants don’t speak English fluently, and sadly most experience some form of discrimination at the hands of xenophobic Americans. Still, these immigrants, much like the immigrants of previous centuries, continue working proudly even while they are jeered at or taken advantage of by their employers.

At its core, immigration reform is about how we as a country view the basic human right to work where there are jobs. Do we believe that jobs are reserved for those who come from a certain class, race, religion, gender, or country of origin? Or do we believe that any person, regardless of who they are and where they are from, has the right to at least compete for a better job and life?

Humanists have a role to play in the conversation about immigration reform because our values require us to stand up for human rights and the vulnerable within our society. Immigrants, illegal and legal, didn’t choose their country of origin, and many weren’t able to choose how they left it because of economic necessity. We shouldn’t punish them for having bad luck or trying to provide for their families; rather, we should reward their work ethic and bravery by welcoming them in to our diverse society. As humanists, we must remind our fellow Americans that immigrants are human beings, and they deserve the same respect and opportunity for a better life that we all want for ourselves and our children.