Why Immigration is a 2020 Election Issue

by Cristina A. Godinez, Esq.

| Photo courtesy of NPR

When people speak of politics and immigration, it is almost always framed in terms of how elected officials affect immigration policy, and not how proposed immigration policy gets public officials elected.

Elections in the United States- at least since 2000 – are usually won or lost on the basis of a candidate’s stand on all other issues but immigration. Twenty years ago, the Bush-Gore presidential race was defined by domestic issues such as defense spending and government services. In the 2004 and 2008 elections, voter issues revolved around the economy, energy and healthcare. In the 2012 electoral race, the top three issues were the national debt, unemployment and healthcare.

These, despite the bipartisan consensus that the U.S. immigration system has been dysfunctional for far too long, and in desperate need of fixing.

Even in the 2016 electoral race that catapulted the current occupant of the White House, immigration was not considered a top voter issue – notwithstanding the promise of building a border wall supposedly to be paid for by Mexico, or banning the entry of persons from Muslim-majority countries. While voter passions were stoked one way or another, voter priorities were still focused on the economy, primarily, and then, terrorism.

Now we come upon a fork in the road – the 2020 elections. Should immigration – an issue that mainly concerns persons who cannot even vote – be considered a voter priority in the upcoming electoral race?

The short answer is “Yes.” The long answer: yes, because it affects all the other voter priorities that historically defined the electoral races for the past 20 years.

For the November presidential elections, pundits have whittled down voter priorities to: (a) jobs and the economy, on one hand and (b) the Covid-19 pandemic response, on the other. Both voter priorities are inextricably related to immigration policy.

“Regardless of political color, whether blue, red or the 50 shades of purple in between, immigration is a legitimate voter priority because it impacts the economy.”

Immigration and the Economy

Regardless of political color, whether blue, red or the 50 shades of purple in between, immigration is a legitimate voter priority because it impacts the economy. From the time non-citizens come to the United States as students to the point where they become permanent residents and eventually U.S. citizens, the contributions immigrants make to the economy are palpable and enduring.
Consider these:

• International students contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy from 2018 to 2019, according to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA), the country’s leading organization committed to international education and exchange.
• NAFSA data notes that international students created or supported over 458,000 U.S. jobs and that nearly a quarter of the founders of the $1 billion U.S. startup companies first came to America as students.
• Since most immigrants are of working age (18 to 64 years old), they support the aging native-born population, by bolstering the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, according to the nonpartisan research and policy institute, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
• In fact, the Social Security Administration itself reports that earnings of undocumented persons has a positive effect on SSA’s program funds, contributing roughly $12 billion in 2010, and estimates this trend will continue.
• Immigrant-founded Fortune 500 firms employ 12.8 million people worldwide, and accounted for $5.3 trillion in global revenue in 2016 according to the Center for American Entrepreneurship.
• About 3.2 million immigrants ran their own businesses, making up one in every five entrepreneurs in the country, according to the bipartisan New American Economy (NAE).
• Immigrant-owned businesses employed almost 8 million American workers and generated $1.3 trillion in total sales, according to the same NAE report.

Whether it is viewed from the prism of technological innovation, job creation, small business and entrepreneurship, spending power, taxation or social security, the impact of immigrants on the U.S. economy makes for a legitimate voter priority that must be considered by the electorate when ballots are cast in November.

Immigration and the Covid-19 Pandemic Response

The Covid-19 pandemic response will be an important flashpoint in the 2020 elections, and immigration will inevitably figure as a related matter in the debates. Whether a voter decides to absolve or indict the current administration for its draconian anti-immigration policies, the fact remains that such policies have already affected how well (or how poorly) the country responds to the Covid-19 crisis.

“Immigrants come to the U.S. because they can contribute their talent and skill, and the U.S. needs them now as much as ever.”

At the moment, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is mired in systemic inefficiencies and money problems engineered by top-down policies that slow down the processing of applications for immigration benefits. Visa processing at U.S. embassies abroad is at a standstill since mid-March, with very few exceptions. Immigration enforcement is unabated, despite warnings that this will increase public health risks.

The net effect is a constriction of the legal immigration pipeline that prevents the U.S. from accessing the global talent and skill pool required to adequately respond to the Covid-19 crisis.

At this point, it would be too simplistic to frame an immigration policy based on the wrong and discredited notion that foreigners are taking jobs from U.S. citizens. Immigrants come to the U.S. because they can contribute their talent and skill, and the U.S. needs them now as much as ever.

We need them in agriculture, food processing and distribution, transportation—they comprise many of the essential workers who will provide for our basic needs. We need them in the research labs and medical facilities where the fight against Covid-19 is being waged face-to-face.

In the meantime, U.S. citizens have the right to be reunited with their families, and as part of the family of nations, the United States is duty-bound to provide safe harbor to refugees and asylum-seekers.

“It behooves the responsible voter to consider the larger picture, defined by the indisputable fact that we still live in a nation of immigrants.”

It would serve the United States better to develop an immigration policy not out of fear and anger, but out of a clear-headed awareness of our national needs and international obligations.

It behooves the responsible voter to consider the larger picture, defined by the indisputable fact that we still live in a nation of immigrants.

In the 2020 elections, immigration is and must be an issue.

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Cristina Godinez is an attorney who has provided immigration solutions to families, businesses and at-risk migrants in the United States for over 15 years. She worked with the immigration law practice group of a top-tier global law firm and later, with the world’s largest immigration law firm. She is also the attorney at the faith-based Migrant Center of New York where she oversees the delivery of immigration legal services to low-income clients. Cristina is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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