A Nation of Legal Immigrants

By Michelle G. Young, Executive Vice President, Government and External Affairs | Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce

If I asked you today what topic comes to mind as the most heavily debated, I bet you would answer immigration.

Immigration has always been an issue of contention going back to way before you and I were born.  I remember hearing stories from my grandparents about how difficult it was to leave Ireland and just making it alive to our Statue of Liberty.  Signs that read “Help Wanted…No Irish Need Apply” filled New York City.  Needless to say, it was not an easy time putting food on the table.

Today, I know that it’s because of the hard work of my grandparents – and parents – that I am the first in my family to graduate from college. I am extremely fortunate to serve as an executive at The Chamber. I am proud that I serve an organization that believes immigration reform is part of the solution for creating a stronger, more successful, unified nation.

The Chamber recognizes America as “a nation of immigrants.” We believe in welcoming immigrants to reflect the key values our country is based on: hard work, perseverance, taking on challenges, acceptance of culture and showing compassion.

It is clear that reforming our current immigration system can benefit everyone, however, we must ensure that we have a legal immigration system that works. Consistency and transparency are necessary to enforce our laws, protect our borders, keep workforce talent, create jobs and provide overall health and safety as we move forward in the 21st Century.

Statistics show that approximately 12 million illegal immigrants live in America.  It is abundantly clear that we need a path to documentation to allow for proper employment and taxation of them. But that path must not reward those who illegally immigrated because many people around the world have waited more than a decade to legally immigrate to the United States. No person who has circumvented the immigration process and entered the country without proper authorization should be afforded the right to become a citizen, or vote, for a period of no less than 15 years.

The Chamber supports:
• A federal employment verification system that is easily accessible and manageable for employers.
• Systemic reform for green-card and temporary-worker programs for high-skilled and lesser-skilled workers so that the current system becomes more reliable and accountable.
• An attainable legal status for the undocumented people in the U.S. as well as an increased capacity for advanced-skill individuals needed for high-priority occupations in order to facilitate a legal and stable workforce.
• Improving and enhancing enforcement to protect our borders while facilitating the flow of free trade and travel.
• Legislation that takes meaningful steps toward addressing all critical immigration priorities that support business and free enterprise.
• Establishment of an effective analytical tool and data-collection mechanism.

The Chamber opposes actions which:
• Impose unmanageable and inconsistent electronic employment-verification systems.
• Lower caps on visas that cripple the current non-immigrant-worker visa systems.
• Fail to include a mechanism to ensure businesses a future flow of workers to fill jobs with the best available candidates.

The Chamber looks forward to continuing our discussions with our federal officials and Chamber members until we find a solution to the current predicament.

Immigration in a Changing World

By Erika M. Sutherland, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish at Muhlenberg College and co-founder and director of the Hispanic immigrant support group, Grupo de Apoyo e Integración Hispanoamericano

Since November, groups have coalesced across the nation and across diverse sectors to express support for immigrants. Students and educators offered their support for immigrant students, industry leaders spoke out against limits of immigration and civil-rights groups and faith-based organizations rose up to protest restrictions on refugees.

Expressed throughout his campaign and in his early executive orders, the new President’s open hostility to immigrants has struck a nerve. Ours is a nation of immigrants, and despite recognition that our current system of immigration is broken, the past weeks and months have shown that America values our immigrants and is ready to stand up to welcome them.

Welcoming immigrants makes historic sense; Pennsylvania was settled by a rich blend of immigrants with different languages, faiths and world views, traits important to William Penn and that add, even today, to the Commonwealth’s many charms. To cite just one marker, the vibrant restaurant scenes in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton are reflections – and investments – of our immigrant neighbors.

Welcoming immigrants makes economic sense. As Pennsylvania State Treasurer Joe Torsella notes, “Economic activity by immigrants doesn’t just lift their fortunes, but everyone’s: states with higher levels of immigration have higher per capita gross domestic product, for immigrant and native-born alike.”

According to the American Immigration Council, in Pennsylvania, immigrants make up 7.5 percent of the workforce; undocumented immigrants make up 1.7 percent of the workforce and contribute more than $150.4 million in state and local taxes and an estimated total of $5.3 billion in economic activity.

In 2013, more than half of Pennsylvania’s immigrants were naturalized citizens, eligible to vote and participate fully in the civic process. Here in the Lehigh Valley, immigrants have made other important moves toward setting down roots. Sixty-six percent of Allentown’s foreign-born population has purchased a home here, a rate higher than the national average of 52 percent foreign-born homeownership and significantly higher than the Allentown’s overall homeownership rate of 48.2 percent.

The Census Bureau’s Elizabeth Grieco points out, “For immigrants in particular – who maintain nearly one in seven households in the U.S. – making the transition from renter to homeowner represents a significant investment in the United States.”

Beyond the statistics, welcoming immigrants is the right thing to do. While we advocate strongly for comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform, reform that serves both businesses in need of employees and families hoping to remain together without visa wait times measured in years and even decades, at the local level there are ways the business community can and should support our immigrant neighbors.

Be a beacon of ethical behavior when it comes to dealing with immigrant colleagues, employees, customers and clients. Understand what fraud looks like, and be vigilant against it. Work to create opportunities to ease immigrants’ integration into neighborhood and professional communities. Support the Pennsylvania DREAM Act and other initiatives to facilitate immigrant access to higher education. Strive to reject the negative propaganda and to embrace the long-standing and well-documented benefits of our immigrant nation.

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