The Bush administration - pressing Congress to complete immigration reform legislation, is highlighting the contributions immigrants make to the U.S. economy.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday to discuss the impact immigrants have on the U.S. economy.
There may be no better spokesman on the issue than Gutierrez.
The 53-year-old Commerce Secretary was born in Havana, Cuba, and fled to the United States with his family when he was six. He learned English, became a U.S. citizen, and later studied business administration. He took an entry-level sales job at the cereal manufacturing company Kellogg's, where he rose through the ranks to become Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer before President Bush nominated him to his current post.
Under questioning by committee chairman, Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Gutierrez highlighted the role immigrants play in the growth of the U.S. economy.
"The unemployment rate for undocumented workers is actually below the national average, which suggests that they come for one reason and one reason only, and that is to work," he said. "Approximately - these are estimates - five or six percent of our jobs are carried out by undocumented workers."
"And is their presence here, their contribution to the economy, a net gain that ripples through to the benefit of all the rest of us in this country," asked Specter.
"Absolutely, the owners of the businesses that have access to those workers in turn become consumers, in turn spend money in our economy, they invest in their businesses," replied Gutierrez. "The immigrants become consumers. There is a multiplying effect to our economy, that every estimate I have seen suggests it is positive."
But some in Congress, Republican conservatives in particular, believe illegal immigrants could be taking a toll on the U.S. economy and local social services.
Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, says Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to get emergency health care because undocumented workers who do not have insurance that would pay for routine doctor visits are filling hospital emergency rooms.
"Twenty-five percent of my constituents in Texas do not have health insurance, and a large number of those are undocumented immigrants who show up in emergency rooms, and so emergency rooms go on divert status, where true emergencies have to go to wherever they can find the help," noted Cornyn
But Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, cited statistics from the National Research Council that suggest immigrants in general contribute to the tax base that funds services.
"Overall, an immigrant and his family contribute over 80,000 more in taxes over their lifetime than they consume in services," he said.
Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, noting that most undocumented workers in the United States are low-skilled, argued that more should be done to attract high-skilled immigrants to this country.
"We need high-skilled workers, they make a great contribution. Our marketplace needs low-skilled workers as well. Most of the immigrant generations that have come to this country have been low-skilled," Gutierrez responded. "The first generation is low-skilled. But because they come to work, because they come in search of a dream, they work very hard to ensure that their children are not low-skilled."
Immigration advocates argue that many of the undocumented workers in the United States are doing jobs that Americans generally are unwilling to do, including manual labor in agriculture and construction.
Gutierrez's appearance on Capitol Hill comes as the Senate and House of Representatives are preparing to reconcile vastly different immigration reform bills passed by each chamber. The effort to find common ground between the two different pieces of legislation reflects the tensions surrounding the issue that are being playing out in the much of the country.
Ben Johnson, director of the Washington-based non-profit Immigration Policy Center put it this way.
"The real challenges we face today stem from the fact that we send two messages at our border: help wanted and keep out," he said. "The byproduct of this schizophrenia is that law enforcement agencies, businesses and families are stuck between a rock and a hard place. In short, we have created an unsustainable contradiction between U.S. economic policy and U.S. immigration policy, and economics is winning. We can either continue to spend billions of dollars in an immigration enforcement battle with our own economy and our own labor force, or we can create an immigration system that is not only good at keeping people out, but effective at allowing people in."
The Senate has passed a bill that includes a guest worker provision that would allow many of the estimated 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants a path to eventual citizenship if they meet certain conditions. It also would bolster border security.
A House-passed bill focuses on border security enforcement, and does not contain the guest worker provision. It designates illegal immigrants felons to be deported.
The Bush administration favors the Senate approach. Gutierrez argues an enforcement-only bill would send illegal immigrants into hiding.