A section of the inner international border wall separating San Diego, California from Tijuana, Mexico. Photo by Sherry Smith via Creative Commons.

In summary

Imagine if California’s undocumented workers were to stop working. Unharvested crops would rot in the fields. The hospitality industry would shut down. Residential construction would plummet. It would be an economic catastrophe.

By Pete Weber

Pete Weber is a retired CEO and co-chair of California Forward, a bipartisan nonprofit to improve government decision-making, pete@1weber.com. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

Have we had enough of the Washington gridlock on immigration issues?

When our elected federal leaders find themselves incapable of fixing a decades-old problem, California not only has the right but the obligation to act in its own interests. Virtually all Americans agree that our immigration system is broken. If Washington won’t fix it, California must act.

We can begin by accepting the recommendation of a 2002 Little Hoover Commission report, as relevant today as it was back then, to establish a state residency program for immigrants who demonstrate a commitment to becoming responsible members of our communities.

We can do an analysis of our workforce needs by industry sector, similar to what is already done in Canada. We can determine how many native-born and documented workers we have to serve those needs and fill gaps by issuing multi-year, renewable residency permits for qualified immigrant workers, including undocumented workers who are already in California.

California has shortages in a wide range of occupations, from computer scientists to agricultural workers; from construction workers to health service providers.

Economic growth is dependent on three ingredients: innovation, capital and labor. In California, that growth needs immigrant labor. The population of native-born 18-to-64-year-old workers in the U.S. has expanded by less than .2 percent per year over the last decade and is projected to expand by just .1 percent per year over the next decade. More than one in four California residents is foreign-born and about 30 percent of those are undocumented.

Imagine if California’s undocumented workers were to stop working. Unharvested crops would rot in the fields. The hospitality industry would shut down. Residential construction would plummet. It would be an economic catastrophe.

Our elected representatives in Washington have allowed ideological extremists on the right and the left to use immigration as a political wedge issue. Most of us understand the stalemate about “the wall” is not about fixing the problem; it’s about politics.

Many on the far-right refuse to acknowledge that the decades-long failure to create an effective legal immigration system has made many employers dependent on undocumented workers and has lured immigrants willing to work.

Many on the far left fail to appreciate how many millions of people would flock to the U.S. under an open border policy.

They refuse to acknowledge that every sovereign nation not only has a right but an obligation to vet prospective immigrants for reasons of public safety, national security and economic interest as well as to protect wage rates (heavily influenced by the supply and demand of labor) and to prevent stressing our safety net.

California is a nation-state with an economy larger than that of all but four nations. So what do we do when our federal government proves to be incapable of fixing a problem with huge implications for our state?

Article 10 of the U.S. Constitution provides that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people”.

Article 10 does not allow California to grant citizenship; only the federal government can do that. But there’s a lot that we can do.

We can acknowledge that by acts of both omission and commission our policies encouraged people to enter our nation illegally. Many of them brought their young children, who have grown up side-by-side with our children.

It would be dishonest to deny that we were complicit in creating these circumstances, so the solution must be based in part on trademark American values of fairness and compassion. We should treat these children as we would treat any other American.

We can, as proposed in the Little Hoover Commission report, put in place programs to help responsible immigrants integrate into our communities and society; a stark contrast from the policies that currently prevent or delay such integration.

We can distinguish between law-abiding people and bad actors. Undocumented workers who fail to get a residency permit, or who have a felony or multiple misdemeanor convictions, or who persistently show they are only here for our generous social benefits, can be turned over to the federal government for deportation.

Surveys tell us that Americans will support solutions that reflect this combination of liberal and conservative values.

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