A new report on U.S. immigration calls for legalizing the status of millions of undocumented workers and revamping policies to better absorb immigrants into American society. The task force report by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations says the situation is already in crisis - application backlogs are growing, worker abuse continues, families remain separated, scientific and medical research is hampered by visa complications for immigrant experts and the system's vulnerabilites invite security threats by potential terrorists. The task force of more than 30 prominent business and political leaders calls for quick action to fix the system.
During the past decade, immigrants have accounted for about one third of the population growth in the United States and nearly half the growth of the U.S. labor force.
Former Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner is not surprised. "The changes in this country are that we are a country that is aging," she said. "We have less and less of a workforce coming forward as a result of children born to native-born Americans and the numbers are very dramataic. Fifty percent of the growth of the workforce in this country in the 1990s came about as a result of immigrants. And that was on a parallel track with the longest sustained economic growth in our history. There is a direct tie between that sustained economic prosperity that we enjoyed and the availability of immigrant workers in our workforce."
The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations' report on immigration focuses on the American Midwest. In the region's 12 states, immigrants accounted for 85 percent of the workforce growth in the last decade.
Why a report on the Midwest? Legislators and experts usually look at immigration as an issue for border states or coastal gateways like New York or San Francisco.
Not so any more, says Alejandro Silva, a task force member and an immigrant from Mexico.
Mr. Silva considers foreign-born laborers an essential part of economic growth, both for their hard work and their role as consumers.
"The immigration creates wealth, creates a growth," he explains. "I have seen that year after year. You see the Midwest, if it had not been for immigration of the new immigrants, we would not have grown the way that we see it."
Mr. Silva says his food processing companies, like many other manufacturing plants, depend on immigrant labor. And like other U.S. employers, they must deal with the difficult issue of illegal immigration.
Doris Meissner says the United States must do a better job of controlling the flow of illegals by strengthening border security.
"Immigration is a very important positive advantage for the United States," he adds. "So we have to do this right. And the way to do this right, we believe, is to focus very intensively on good and stronger border controls, on good intelligence and information sharing on internatinal cooperation, particualrly on law enforcement."
Still, the task force sees a disconnect between reality and immigration laws enacted after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Mr. Silva says tighter security laws often lead desperate immigrants to take more risks to get to the United States.
"[The] tighter it has become after 9/11, the more difficult it has become for people to come, the more risks they have to take to come into the U.S," he notes. "It's a law that has been violated every day and everybody knows. And the government doesn't seem to face the reality. And the reality is the system is not working."
The report calls for a better balance between laws focused on security and those aimed at encouraging legal integration. It also urges more structured temporary worker programs and more innovative job training initiatives to fill future labor market needs.
Doris Meissner says the report warns against security measures that unfairly target or discourage nationality groups from migrating to the United States.
"It's legitimate for us to know who is coming and going from the country," she says. "But at the same time, we were absolutely clear in our view that it should not be done in a way that singles out any particular nationality group, that rejects from coming to the United States people from particular parts of the world, like the Middle East or Arab countries, that you can have both and. You can have a healthy immigraiton system. You can treat people fairly from all parts of the world, that's after all part of the rule of law that the United States is based upon and still strengthen security."
The task force report will be circulated among U.S. lawmakers now considering changes to American immigration policy. Task force member Alejandra Silva concedes the advisory report does not have all the answers.
"It's not an easy problem," he adds. "We don't have all the answers. We don't intend to have all the answers either. We don't intend to set out the way it should be legislated. We may have the ideas that may work and some of what may be needed and the priorities for the administration to do something about."
And with the November U.S. presidential elections on the horizon, Ms. Meissner says the political impact of immigration is not lost on lawmakers or the Bush Administration. "Certainly politicians pay more attention as immigrant groups become citizens because, let's face it, they then are able to vote and that is what politics and decision-making is all about," she notes.
The Chicago Council's task force is calling on lawmakers to intensify their debate and enact reforms that balance security and immigration needs without undermining either one.